How To Deal With Panic Attacks
A panic attack is a feeling of sudden and intense anxiety.
Panic attacks can also have physical symptoms, including shaking, feeling disorientated, nausea, rapid, irregular heartbeats, dry mouth, breathlessness, sweating and dizziness.
The symptoms of a panic attack are not dangerous, but can be very frightening.
They can make you feel as though you are having a heart attack, or that you are going to collapse or even die.
Most panic attacks last somewhere from five minutes to half an hour.
Anxiety Attack Risk Factors
Some common risk factors that increase your chances of having an anxiety attack include:
- A build-up of stress due to excessive demands and responsibilities
- Traumatic experiences
- Existential anxiety
If you notice that youre experiencing some of the above and youre gradually being more stressed, its time to reach out for help. As mentioned earlier, a single episode of an anxiety or panic attack wont be too harmful, but the lengths we go to to avoid it can be, and living an unresolved anxiety disorder can deteriorate your mental, emotional and physical health in the long run.
Mental health professionals can advise you on how best to manage and treat your anxiety, dont hesitate to reach out if youre struggling. Below weve outlined how professional help can support you on your recovery journey, as well as tools and techniques you can apply daily to help keep your anxiety under control.
Stress Anxiety And Then Panic: Neal’s Story
As Sideman says, his attack occurred in the early 1990s, and few people seriously considered the possibility of a panic attack in a 39-year-old man. So he went home thinking all would be fine, only to have another, more severe attack one week later.
Now, looking back, the situation seems clearer.
I was under a lot of stress starting a new business, working 16-hour days, a close friend was ill and dying, and on top of all that, I was doing a super heavy workout regimen at the gym with a trainer,” Sideman says. “So it was a lot of physical stress, emotional stress, and a lot of financial stresses.” He says he also can see roots of anxiety in his childhood and teen years as well as in other family members.
In the moment, he didnt know what to think because it can be tough to know what a panic attack is like until you have one. His second panic attack was really a full-blown panic attack, where I thought I was going to die,” Sideman says. “I thought I was going to pass out, not wake up, go crazy, have a heart attack.”
He recalled being terrified, and the response he chose was one that can actually make panic disorder worse: He started to avoid the situations where he had attacks.
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Treatment For Panic Attacks And Panic Disorder
The most effective form of professional treatment for tackling panic attacks, panic disorder, and agoraphobia is therapy. Even a short course of treatment can help.
Cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on the thinking patterns and behaviors that are sustaining or triggering your panic attacks and helps you look at your fears in a more realistic light. For example, if you had a panic attack while driving, what is the worst thing that would really happen? While you might have to pull over to the side of the road, you are not likely to crash your car or have a heart attack. Once you learn that nothing truly disastrous is going to happen, the experience of panic becomes less terrifying.
Hotlines and support
NAMI Helpline Trained volunteers can provide information, referrals, and support for those suffering from anxiety disorders in the U.S. Call 1-800-950-6264.
Find a Therapist Search for anxiety disorder treatment providers in the U.S.
Support Groups List of support groups in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and South Africa.
Anxiety UK Information, support, and a dedicated helpline for UK sufferers and their families. Call: 03444 775 774.
Anxiety Canada Provides links to services in different Canadian provinces.
SANE Help Centre Provides information about symptoms, treatments, medications, and where to go for support in Australia. Call: 1800 18 7263. .
Panic Attacks Vs Anxiety Attacks
Although panic attacks and anxiety attacks are often conflated, they are two distinct conditions with distinct symptoms. In general, panic attacks are abrupt, intense and unexpected, while anxiety attacks are prolonged periods of anxiety. The two experiences share some physical symptoms, including increased heart rate and hyperventilation.
It is important to note the clinical distinctions between the two conditions using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th edition as a basis. The DSM-5 is the psychiatric fields authority on psychiatric diagnosis criteria, treatment recommendations, contemporary terminology and updated scientific findings and research. Panic attacks are defined as a specifier that can be applicable to all disorders in the DSM-5 meaning they provide context to the disorder being diagnosed and can corroborate the diagnosis of any disorder is defined in the DSM-5, however, anxiety attacks do not appear in the Manual as a symptom, specifier or condition. Further, panic attacks can be a specifier or a symptom of any psychiatric disorder defined in the DSM-5, while anxiety itself is only considered a symptom of anxiety disorders.
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Treatment For Anxiety And Panic Attacks
Psychotherapy is an effective method of treatment for anxiety attacks because it can help you understand them and equip you with the strategies you need in order to cope with your anxiety attacks. This is usually the first recommendation in treating anxiety attacks.
Medication is another form of treatment if the panic attacks are frequent and disrupt everyday life. Medication can reduce the symptoms of a panic attack, however, it still takes time for it to take effect.
However, counselling is highly encouraged prior to taking medication as it is a long term treatment plan that allows you to address your anxiety attacks head-on.
How It Feels After A Panic Attack
A more likely possibility is that you had a single panic attack that leaves you feeling generally anxious, tired, and frayed. While panic attacks can be scary, they’re not dangerous. But the fear they may cause you can be more unsettling than the attack itself. That’s especially true if you’ve never had one before. When it’s your first episode, you may think you’re having a stroke or a heart attack.
How do you tell if it’s a panic attack or high anxiety? It’s tricky. It helps to talk to your doctor, but a closer look at your symptoms often can give you some clues.
A true panic attack tends to have clear, intense, physical symptoms — a pounding heart, shortness of breath, and so on.
Anxiety can give you some of these, but they tend to be milder. Instead, you’ll have more mental symptoms like a racing mind, lots of worries you can’t stop, and a hard time focusing. You might also feel restless and have a hard time sleeping.
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Learn About Panic Attacks And Anxiety
Knowledge is power. With more information about panic attacks, you can be aware of your symptoms, feel more in control, and shorten your attacks.
While many people experience a panic attack just once or a few times, others experience them as part of an existing anxiety disorder. Learning about anxiety can help you better manage it.
Whats The Longest A Panic Attack Can Last
Most panic attacks last only a few minutes though they often feel like a lifetime when youre experiencing one. Symptoms typically peak within 10 minutes and then begin to fade away.
Its possible to have a panic attack thats especially long or short. Some attacks can peak in a few seconds, with the entire attack lasting just minutes, while others may last longer.
Most research has described single panic attacks lasting up to 30 minutes. Some reports by individuals have described attacks lasting hours or even days.
According to some experts, if symptoms dont peak within 10 minutes, its not considered a panic attack . Instead, its considered high anxiety. While this is still incredibly uncomfortable and unpleasant, it may not be diagnosed as a panic attack.
Its also possible to experience multiple panic attacks that occur in waves for an hour or longer.
- fear of losing control or of dying
- nausea and other stomach discomfort
In a panic attack, symptoms come on suddenly, peak, and then gradually fade away.
Physical symptoms are often the first to subside, though depending on your anxiety levels, you may continue to hyperventilate and experience chest and abdominal discomfort. After the comedown of the attack, you may also feel tired or tension in your muscles.
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How To Stop A Panic Attack
Trying to force yourself to stop a panic attack may make your symptoms worse. However, there are some ways to stop a panic attack when you feel it coming on.
Understanding how panic works and the stages of a panic attack can help you control your racing thoughts and calm yourself. When you understand whats happening with your body and what will happen next, you can talk yourself through the attack.
Learning how to control your breathing can help with hyperventilation and can be a focus for racing thoughts. A technique called box breathing involves inhaling for four counts, holding for four counts, exhaling for four count, and then holding for four counts. Repeat this for a few minutes and focus on the counts and the breath.
Exercising regularly and getting proper sleep are also ways to lower your susceptibility for panic attacks. Exercise helps regulate your emotions and reduce stress. Regular, quality sleep can make it easier to manage upsetting situations and negative emotional responses that accompany them.
Relaxation techniques, like gentle yoga or daily meditation, can also help center you. When you practice mindfulness and develop consistency with meditation, you may more easily be able to soothe your fears with the meditation techniques you practice when youre calmer.
Other triggers for panic attacks include certain life changes and major transitions like having a baby, losing a loved one, getting married or divorced, losing your job, or graduating college.
What Are Some Coping Mechanisms In The Moment
First things first: Breathe. Youre probably hyperventilating, but stabilizing your breathing can quickly calm your bodys fight-or-flight response.
Try counting your breaths. One deep breath in, one deep breath out. Count up to 10 and then start again until your breathing is back to normal.
Other quick coping strategies include:
- recognizing that what youre experiencing is a panic attack
- finding an object to focus on
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Panic Attack Signs And Symptoms
The signs and symptoms of a panic attack develop abruptly and usually reach their peak within 10 minutes. They rarely last more than an hour, with most ending within 20 to 30 minutes. Panic attacks can happen anywhere and at any time. You may have one while youre in a store shopping, walking down the street, driving in your car, or even sitting on the couch at home.
Panic attack symptoms include:
- Shortness of breath or hyperventilation
- Heart palpitations or racing heart
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Feeling unreal or detached from your surroundings
- Feeling dizzy, light-headed, or faint
- Numbness or tingling sensations
- Fear of dying, losing control, or going crazy
Is it a heart attack or a panic attack?
Most of the symptoms of a panic attack are physical, and many times these symptoms are so severe that you may think youre having a heart attack. In fact, many people suffering from panic attacks make repeated trips to the doctor or the emergency room in an attempt to get treatment for what they believe is a life-threatening medical problem. While its important to rule out possible medical causes of symptoms such as chest pain, elevated heart rate, or difficulty breathing, its often panic that is overlooked as a potential causenot the other way around.
Can You Prevent A Panic Attack
You dont have to live your life in fear of panic attacks. There are several tools and techniques you can use to help manage your attacks and even prevent them.
A good way to prevent panic attacks is to create a plan that will help you feel more in control. If you have a plan worked out for when an attack comes on, you can potentially shorten the duration and frequency of attacks.
Your plan might include:
- practicing a deep breathing exercise or doing progressive muscle relaxation
- focusing a grounding technique like the 5-4-3-2-1 technique
- reading a sheet of paper describing panic attacks, to help rationalize the fear of dying
- having a short list of mantras either on a sticky note or in your phone to open, saying something like I am going to be OK, these are just symptoms of panic.
You may want to seek support and let your family, friends, or coworkers in on your plans for when youre in specific situations.
- At home, you can teach your partner or roommate a relaxation technique that they can do with you when youre in the midst of an attack. Breathing together may help you feel more grounded and focused.
- At work, you may want to simply give a trusted coworker or boss a heads up that you experience panic attacks. Sharing this information can feel scary, but it can also make your office feel like a safer space.
Other ways to prevent future attacks include:
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Social Anxiety Is My Old Friend
Georgiana had her first panic attack in her late twenties. She was at work at the time. She left peremptorily and never returned. She became housebound almost at once and only later, after some treatment was able to leave her house in the company of her mother.
Along the way to getting better, she took her first cruise, which was very threatening. She felt trapped. But, as time went on, she got better and better. She went to work again and about a year later met and then married a man she met at work. For their honeymoon, they went on a cruise! She told me later on what happened in Costa Rica.
We went to see the jungle, but we got lost. It was a Spanish-speaking jungle, and it closed at five oclock. So we were afraid wed miss the boat. She then told me about her adventures lost in the jungle. This experience seemed to lend some spice to her honeymoon, but it did not cause a return of her symptoms. The last time I spoke to her, she was still fine.
I have run into other patients from time to time years after treatment. Not uncommonly, when I ask about their symptoms, they get mad. That was a long time ago, one woman said to me. She did not like to remember what she considered an irrational and somewhat embarrassing fear. And yet, she had been phobic for years.
Panic Attacks I Turned My Mental Health Crisis Into A Mental Health Triumph
“Although it’s taken me a long time I have learned I am a strong person who has the potential to help others.”
You might find that you become scared of going out alone or to public places because you’re worried about having another panic attack. If this fear becomes very intense, it may be called agoraphobia. See our pages on types of phobia for more information.
“I felt like I couldn’t breathe, I just wanted to get out, to go somewhere else, but I couldn’t because I was on a train.”
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What Are The Complications Of Panic Attacks
Panic attacks are highly treatable. Unfortunately, many people put off seeking help because theyre embarrassed. Untreated panic attacks or panic disorder can interfere with your ability to enjoy life. You may develop:
- Anticipatory anxiety: The possibility of having a panic attack triggers extreme anxiety.
- Phobias: A phobia is an extreme, unreasonable fear of something specific. For instance, acrophobia is a fear of heights, while claustrophobia is a fear of enclosed spaces.
- Agoraphobia: Approximately two-thirds of people with panic disorder develop agoraphobia. This anxiety disorder makes you afraid to be in places or situations where a panic attack might happen. The fear can become so extreme that you become too afraid to leave your house.
Is One Worse Than The Other
Panic attacks and anxiety attacks differ in intensity and duration. Its impossible to say which kind of attack is worse, since each persons experience is different.
Panic attacks can be frightening because they happen without warning or an obvious trigger. The symptoms can be intense and disruptive, often accompanied with a feeling of being disconnected from reality.
Though theyre usually short in duration, its possible to get several panic attacks in a row, which can make the experience of panic feel longer.
Anxiety is a response to a known trigger, which may be less startling for some. The symptoms do tend to last longer than a panic attack, often building over hours or days. Symptoms of anxiety exist on a spectrum, ranging from mild to severe.
Depending on the kinds of symptoms you experience with anxiety or a panic attack, you might find different approaches to care helpful.
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What Are The Differences
Here are some of the features that distinguish them.
An anxiety attack, or anxiety:
- can have a specific trigger, such as an exam, workplace issues, a health issue, or a relationship problem
- is not a diagnosable condition
- is less severe than a panic attack
- usually develops gradually when a person feels anxious
- involves physical symptoms, such as a racing heart or knot in the stomach
A panic attack:
- often occurs suddenly and unexpectedly and last between a few minutes and an hour, although the negative impact may continue
The term anxiety attack is not listed in the American Psychological Associations Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5th Edition .