A panic attack is a sudden surge of overwhelming anxiety and fear. Your heart pounds and you can’t breathe. You may even feel like you’re dying or going crazy. Left untreated, panic attacks can lead to panic disorder and other problems. They may even cause you to withdraw from normal activities. But panic attacks can be cured and the sooner you seek help, the better. With treatment, you can reduce or eliminate the symptoms of panic and regain control of your life.
Why do people get panic attacks?
Some people are prone to panic attacks because of a traumatic experience in their past, while others suffer panic attacks alongside another underlying condition, such as agoraphobia, post-traumatic stress, or OCD. Some people get panic attacks in the wake of suffering a recent setback or problem, such as bereavement or the loss of a job. However, we don’t always know what the cause is.
Signs and symptoms of a panic attack
Panic attacks often strike when you’re away from home, but they can happen anywhere and at any time. You may have one while you’re in a store shopping, walking down the street, driving in your car, or sitting on the sofa watching the tv at home.
The signs and symptoms of a panic attack develop abruptly and usually reach their peak within 10 minutes. Most panic attacks end within 20 to 30 minutes, and they rarely last more than an hour.
A full-blown panic attack includes a combination of the following signs and symptoms:
- Shortness of breath or hyperventilation
- Heart palpitations or a racing heart
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Trembling or shaking
- Choking feeling
- Feeling unreal or detached from your surroundings
- Nausea or upset stomach
- Feeling dizzy, light-headed, or faint
- Numbness or tingling sensations
- Hot or cold flashes
- 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 people think they’re 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 it’s important to rule out possible medical causes of symptoms such as chest pain, heart palpitations, or difficulty breathing, it’s often panic that is overlooked as a potential cause—not the other way around.
Signs and symptoms of panic disorder
You may be suffering from panic disorder if you:
- Experience frequent, unexpected panic attacks that aren’t tied to a specific situation
- Worry a lot about having another panic attack
- Are behaving differently because of the panic attacks, such as avoiding places where you’ve previously panicked
While a single panic attack may only last a few minutes, the effects of the experience can leave a lasting imprint. If you have panic disorder, the recurrent panic attacks take an emotional toll. The memory of the intense fear and terror that you felt during the attacks can negatively impact your self-confidence and cause serious disruption to your everyday life. Eventually, this leads to the following panic disorder symptoms:
Anticipatory anxiety – Instead of feeling relaxed and like yourself in between panic attacks, you feel anxious and tense. This anxiety stems from a fear of having future panic attacks. This “fear of fear” is present most of the time, and can be extremely disabling.
Phobic avoidance – You begin to avoid certain situations or environments. This avoidance may be based on the belief that the situation you’re avoiding caused a previous panic attack. Or you may avoid places where escape would be difficult or help would be unavailable if you had a panic attack. Taken to its extreme, phobic avoidance becomes agoraphobia. Agoraphobia was traditionally thought to involve a fear of public places and open spaces. However, it is now believed that agoraphobia develops as a complication of panic attacks. With agoraphobia, you’re afraid of having a panic attack in a situation where escape would be difficult or embarrassing. You may also be afraid of having a panic attack where you wouldn’t be able to get help.
Can Psychotherapy help?
In the short term, medication can provide some relief, but for lasting change, psychotherapy can make a big difference. By using cognitive behavioural therapy, a good therapist can work with someone who suffers from panic attacks to identify their triggers and help them to learn how to recognise and manage the difficult emotions that lead to the attack. Over time, it may also be possible to identify the underlying cause, and address the deep-rooted problem behind the attacks.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
Cognitive behavioural therapy is generally viewed as the most effective form of treatment for panic attacks, panic disorder, and agoraphobia. Cognitive behavioural therapy focuses on the thinking patterns and behaviours that are sustaining or triggering the panic attacks. It 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.
Working with one of our therapists can help you tackle the panic you experience so you can enjoy life more fully.
Morency Therapy provide panic counselling for South Birmingham and Worcestershire, including Alvechurch, Barnt Green, Bromsgrove and Redditch.