What Causes Panic Attacks And How Can You Stop Them?
By Nadia Khan
Updated May 21, 2020
Reviewer Heather Cashell
Have you ever had a panic attack? Chances are you may have had something similar to a panic attack or something that maybe you thought was one, but there are a lot of different symptoms related to a true panic attack. For those that suffer from them, they can be completely debilitating and terrifying, because they seem to come on without warning in some cases and they can take over your life. That's why it's important to understand these attacks and figure out how to work through them.
What Is A Panic Attack?
A panic attack is considered a very abrupt or sudden occurrence of discomfort or even fear. It can last several minutes, and it contains a variety of different symptoms during the event. Some individuals have had what's considered a limited-symptom panic attack, which is somewhat similar but includes a smaller number of symptoms in the attack. This may be more like what the average person experiences and believes to be a panic attack or it is possible you do not have a panic attack at all, but simply high-level anxiety.
High-level anxiety can occur with things like an uncomfortable feeling in your stomach or a racing heartbeat, but these feelings are not as strong as they are in an individual having a panic attack. They are also not as long lasting because they may come and come or may occur for only a few seconds or a few minutes before abating. In a full-blown panic attack, these feelings can last much longer, and the intensity of the feelings is very strong, which is why it's important to get treatment.
Symptoms Of Panic Attacks
There are a large number of symptoms that go along with panic attacks, and these attacks can be made up of any combination of four or more of them. A limited-symptom panic attack may contain a smaller number of symptoms but keep in mind that a true panic attack is strong in intensity and lasts for several minutes. Anything lower than this is not considered a panic attack, but you may still want to speak with your doctor or another medical professional to find out more about what it is and why it's happening.
Heart palpitations are one of the first symptoms of a panic attack and can feel like a pounding or racing heartbeat. This is one of the more common symptoms for those with increased anxiety or any form of panic attacks. There may also be feelings of chest pain or another discomfort in the stomach area or a feeling of knots in the stomach and chest. You may even feel nauseous or ill.
Sweating, shaking, dizziness and even chills or overheating are also symptoms that you should watch out for. Feelings of parathesia, which manifests as a tingling sensation or a feeling of losing touch with reality or depersonalization can also be signs of an attack.
Feeling like you are choking, short of breath, or even smothering or feeling lightheaded or faint are other serious symptoms. Some individuals even feel like they are losing control or completely going crazy or even that they are going to die. With any of these symptoms, it's important to seek out professional help to find out what's going on and work on treatment.
An individual who has panic attacks frequently may have a history of frequent visits to the emergency room with a variety of different problems including heart disease, heart attacks, breathing problems, thyroid problems and much more because the symptoms can feel like a range of other disorders.
The attacks may occur when you feel anxious, nervous or stressed or they may occur when you are feeling completely calm and relaxed. They may occur in conjunction with other psychological disorders and may be a symptom of attempting to break the 'rules' of another psychological disorder. For example, when attempting to ignore a compulsion, you may experience a panic attack. This is not a necessary component, but it can occur in some individuals.
Making changes to the lifestyle in ways that are not necessarily for self-improvement could be a sign of panic attacks as well. An individual who suffers from these attacks may go out of their way to try and change things in their lives so that they won't experience panic attacks again. They may try to guess things that will cause panic attacks or simply cut out activities that may be stressful or too exciting or overwhelming to reduce or eliminate the chances of panic attacks, but unfortunately, this process doesn't work, and the individual may continue to cut more and more from their life.
Who Has Panic Disorder?
Some different people have panic attacks and just about anyone is capable of having one at some time or another, whether because of an increase in stress in their lives or because of medical conditions or medications. The occurrence of the true panic disorder is also possible amongst just about anything, though there is a higher tendency in families if one or more individuals have these types of attacks. Otherwise, high stress or major life events can also cause panic attacks and panic disorder, like graduation, getting a job, having a baby and a whole lot more.
Treatment For Panic Attacks
The first thing that your medical doctor or family physician is going to do is determine if there is another reason for your panic attacks. They will look at any medical conditions you already have as well as any other symptoms to find out if there is a different diagnosis to give you. It is possible that the panic attacks you are experiencing are related to a different medical disorder or even to a type of medication that you are taking. Ruling that out first is going to be important before you start any treatment plan for the panic attacks themselves.
Once you've talked with your doctor and ruled out physical or medication-related causes of the disorder, it's time to start looking at some other options for treatment. Therapy is a great step to help you work through the problems that you're facing and start working on how to get on with your life the way you want to do it. This includes finding a therapist or psychiatrist that you feel comfortable with and who can help you overcome the symptoms and the fear associated with it.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is one that has had the best reception for those with panic disorder because it helps to change the thought patterns that you have related to the disorder. This type of therapy can help you to understand things that trigger panic attacks or things that cause them to be worse in intensity and figure out more realistic ways to look at those events. By thinking carefully about what you are afraid of and what the reality is, you'll be able to work through the fears and slowly integrate yourself back into your own life again.
Exposure therapy, where you are introduced to some of the events that securely cause panic attacks has also proven to be a positive method for many individuals suffering from this disorder. You may be asked to mimic some of the actions related to a panic attack and then taught different ways to cope with anxieties and feelings of helplessness instead. This can help you overcome the fear of the panic attack itself, rather than just the actions that cause the panic attack. That way, if you have attacks in the future, you won't feel as confined or as afraid of what's going to happen.
Some medications are also able to help treat the symptoms that go along with panic disorder, though they're not able to get rid of the disorder all on their own. They also won't be useful over the long term and should only be used as an intermediary step or a method of assistance while you work through therapy.
If you're looking for a professional, however, it can be limiting to try looking at people who are only in your area. You may want to take a look at those who are a little further out as well, like psychiatrists available online. BetterHelp is a great way to connect with a range of different psychiatrists, and you can do it from anywhere in the country. You can simply log on to the website and connect with someone that you feel comfortable with, no matter where their physical office is. Plus, you get to stay wherever you're comfortable, whether that's at home, away on business or anywhere else.
No matter what you do, getting help for panic disorder is important. You want to get on with your life, so make sure that you're doing it. Talk with a professional and find out what you can do to start working on your panic disorder right away.