A panic attack (or anxiety attack) is a sudden rush of fear and anxiety that overwhelms the mind and the body. Panic attacks can result from a specific trigger, or can come without warning. For many people, a single panic attack may be the only experience they ever have, but for others, panic attacks can become a chronic issue. And while panic attacks are a mental health issue resulting from one’s emotional state, they are a very physiological experience. Symptoms of a panic attack include:
- Accelerated heart rate
- Trembling or shaking
- Shortness or breath or a feeling of being smothered
- Numbness or tingling sensations
- Burning sensations
- Chills or hot flashes
- A choking sensation
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Nausea or abdominal symptoms
- Feeling dizzy, faint, unsteady, or lightheaded
- Fear of losing control or going crazy
- A sense that one is about to die
- De-realization (feelings of unreality) or de-personalization (being detached from oneself)
Because panic attacks have so much in common with medical conditions such as heart disease and respiratory disorders, people who are experiencing panic attacks often end up visiting the emergency room, and having tests ordered by their doctors to rule out other medical issues. This is often a prudent step since there are serious issues to be ruled out. However, once the diagnosis of panic attack is made, the treatment focus must shift to addressing the underlying psychiatric cause, particularly if the panic attacks are a recurring issue. Working on any fears stemming from social anxiety, OCD, or Generalized Anxiety (among other possible underlying issues) through a combination of CBT and medication is often the key to reducing panic symptoms.
Limited Symptom Attacks
While the official diagnosis of a panic attack requires 4 of the above symptoms to occur, many people with anxiety issues experience a milder form of panic attack. Limited symptom attacks involve the experience of 1, 2, or 3 panic symptoms at a time. They may be less overwhelming than a full-blown panic attack, but can be equally disruptive to one’s life and cause the same level of distress and worry about one’s physical health that full-blown panic attacks instigate. In many cases, individuals struggling with anxiety may experience frequent limited symptom attacks that wax and wane throughout the day.
Panic Disorder is a mental health condition characterized by a chronic fear of having panic attacks. It typically develops after one has had their first panic attack, an event that can be a genuinely terrifying and traumatic experience. As a result of this new fear, individuals with panic disorder spend a great deal of time and energy monitoring their body for any signs of an oncoming panic attack. One may become anxious with even a hint of a panic symptom, such as a slight sensation of dizziness or a brief feeling of stomach pain. Problems develop because these perceived signs of a panic attack are actually normal, everyday experiences. And one must go to great lengths to prevent oneself from ever feeling these symptoms. Some of the avoidant habits that can result from panic disorder are:
- Preoccupation with observing one’s body sensations on a moment to moment basis
- Avoidance of exercise and physical exertion
- Avoidance of all situations and experiences that cause anxiety and/or distress
- Avoidance of experiences that cause minor amounts of stress
- Avoidance of recommended medications for fear that one’s body will have an extreme reaction
Ironically, this fear of panic attacks can make it more likely for one’s anxiety to rise and for another panic attack to occur. Treatment of panic disorder often involves the gradual exposure (and de-sensitization) to panic symptoms, which can be safely triggered in the therapist’s office, or with the help of family at home.
Treatment for Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder
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