Panic attacks and how to cope

Panic attacks and how to cope

About one third of people experience a panic attack at some point in their life. Here we discuss what panic attacks are and how sufferers can cope.

What is a panic attack?

A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear, anxiety, apprehension, or worry. Panic attacks may or may not be caused by an apparent trigger. Panic attacks are discrete events, meaning that they appear, peak, and then go away. In addition to the psychological feelings of intense fear, panic attacks also bring a number of physical symptoms. These include shortness of breath, a pounding heart or accelerated heart rate, sweaty palms, upset stomach, and more. These symptoms can be concerning and often send people to the emergency room with worries about serious medical issues. Sometimes people think they are having a heart attack. Panic attacks typically peak around 10 minutes and then the symptoms will subside.

Panic attacks versus anxiety attacks

The medical field doesn’t recognize the term “anxiety attack”. Typically it’s used by individuals to describe periods of extreme, intense anxiety. When  someone experiences panic attacks “out of the blue” or with no clear stressor causing them, they may be suffering from what’s known as Panic Disorder. People who have Panic Disorder often have worries about having panic attacks and feel impaired in their day-to-day life.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy can be helpful for treatment Panic Disorder. It helps the individual recognize what’s happening, stop the panic attack, and reduce worries or catastrophic thoughts about experiencing future panic attacks.

What to do in the moment

One of the best interventions once a panic attack begins is to slow one’s breathing. It’s important not to take big, deep breaths, as this can cause hyperventilation. Rather, focus on slowing the rate of breathing by extending the length of each inhale and exhale. Extending each inhale for a count of 4, holding the breath for 4 seconds, and then exhaling for 4 seconds usually works very well. When we slow our breathing, we send a signal to our body to turn off the fight or flight response.

Another strategy that can be helpful is to practice grounding. This involves using senses to reorient oneself to where they are. This can help a person to realize that they are not in danger. One popular technique is for people to identify 5 things they can see, 4 things they can touch, 3 things they can hear, 2 things they can smell, and 1 thing they can taste. The process of focusing on things in the physical world helps the person to draw their attention away from their physical sensations and reduce panic.

Some people find that longer term lifestyle changes are helpful, like reducing caffeine, and getting exercise and sleep.

Finally, remember that although panic attacks are scary, they are not dangerous. They will pass and the symptoms will go away.