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Panic Attack: Symptoms, Triggers and Coping Skills


Panic attacks are sudden periods of intense fear and anxiety that can make you feel like you're losing control or even dying.

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WHAT IS A PANIC ATTACK?

Panic attacks are sudden periods of intense fear and anxiety that can make you feel like you're losing control or even dying. You feel a surge of intense fear and dread. Your heart races, pounding in your chest. Your breathing accelerates and becomes shallow. You break out in a sweat and feel dizzy or lightheaded. A sense of impending doom envelops you. These frightening sensations seem to come out of the blue and escalate quickly, peaking within minutes. Panic attacks are frightening and debilitating, but the good news is they are highly manageable. Understanding what panic attacks are, identifying your triggers, and learning strategies to manage them can help you overcome panic and take hold of yourself.


UNDERSTANDING PANIC ATTACKS: SYMPTOMS AND TRIGGERS

Panic attacks can strike suddenly and without warning, leaving you with frightening symptoms that feel out of your control. To better understand these attacks, it's important to recognize common signs and triggers.

SYMPTOMS

Some symptoms of a panic attack include:

  • A sense of impending doom or fear of loss of control or death

  • Rapid, pounding heart rate

  • Sweating, trembling, or chills

  • Shortness of breath or hyperventilation

  • Chest pain

  • Nausea or stomach issues

These symptoms are frightening but not dangerous and will pass. Panic attacks typically peak within 10 minutes.

TRIGGERS

In terms of reasons, while panic attacks can come even without an obvious trigger, here are certain situations that can cause panic attacks for some people:


1. Social interactions

For those with social anxiety or phobias, interactions at parties, work events or even small talk with strangers may trigger a panic attack. The fear of being judged or embarrassing yourself in front of others can be enough to spur an attack.


2. Health-related triggers

Receiving medical test results, illness or medical procedures are common panic attack triggers for hypochondriacs or those with illness anxiety disorder. The uncertainty and fear surrounding one's health stir up feelings of panic.


3. Traumatic memories

Experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event can lead to panic attacks long after the event. Places, objects, sounds or smells associated with the trauma can trigger flashbacks and panic. This is known as PTSD.


4. Lack of control

Feeling a loss of control over a situation, trapped or confined can induce panic for some. Driving over bridges, flying in planes or even waiting in traffic are examples where a lack of an easy escape route or exit plan can trigger panic.

With panic attacks, the most important step is learning to recognize the signs so you can utilize strategies to halt the panic before it intensifies. With practice and management techniques, panic attacks do not have to rule your life.


HOW DOES PANIC ATTACK DIFFER FROM ANXIETY ATTACK?

Panic attacks and anxiety attacks share some similar symptoms, but there are key differences in their severity and duration. Understanding these distinctions can help you determine the best way to manage your symptoms.

Symptom Intensity

The symptoms of panic attacks tend to be much more intense and severe than anxiety attack symptoms. A panic attack typically comes on suddenly, peaks within minutes, and causes a rush of frightening physical sensations. Your heart may race, you may feel lightheaded or nauseous, and you may fear losing control or even dying. Anxiety attack symptoms, while still unpleasant, are usually less extreme.

Duration of Symptoms

Panic attacks are typically brief but intense, lasting less than 30 minutes. Anxiety attacks, on the other hand, can last for several hours. The worrying thoughts and physical symptoms tend to build up more gradually and take longer to subside.

Loss of Control

Feeling a loss of control is much more common during a panic attack. You may feel like you're dying or are unable to prevent dangerous outcomes. Anxiety attacks, while distressing, usually don't involve this same loss of control or fear of impending doom. You maintain awareness that your anxiety will pass and your worrying thoughts are disproportionate to the situation.

Triggers

Panic attacks often seem to come out of the blue, without an obvious trigger. Anxiety attacks are usually triggered by worrying thoughts related to a specific situation like a work presentation, health issue, or financial problem. The anxiety builds as you ruminate about the situation and catastrophize the possible outcomes.


CREATING AN ACTION PLAN: COPING WITH PANIC ATTACKS

Creating an action plan for when panic attacks strike can help you feel more in control and able to cope during scary moments. Some key things to include in your plan:

Identify symptoms

Learn to recognize early signs of panic so you can implement your coping strategies quickly. Common symptoms include rapid heartbeat, sweating, trembling, shortness of breath, chest pain, nausea, derealization (feelings of unreality), and fear of losing control.

Employ coping strategies

Identify techniques that help ground and calm you. Some options:

  • Deep breathing: Take slow, deep breaths from your diaphragm to help lower your heart rate and feel more in control. Focusing your awareness on your breath helps override the "fight or flight" response that is triggering the panic.

  • Muscle relaxation: Systematically tensing and relaxing your muscle groups one by one can release anxiety and feel soothing.

  • Mindfulness: Focus your attention on your senses or engage in light exercise like walking. This can help shift your mind from the panic. Use your sense of touch, identify different textures, and different temperatures to come back to your present.

  • Reassuring self-talk: Speak to yourself with encouragement and reminders that the panic will pass and you will be okay. Remind yourself that the panic will pass and you are not in any real danger. You have felt this way before and survived. Focus on the present moment rather than worrying about the uncertain future.

  • Challenge negative thoughts: Identifying negative thought patterns can help you identify and replace them with more constructive ones.

  • Limit caffeine/stimulants: Reduce intake of stimulants which can exacerbate symptoms.

  • Connecting with others: Call a trusted friend or family member. Let them know you are experiencing panic and talk to them until you feel calmer. Create an environment of safety and support around you.

  • Use distraction as a tool: The more you can shift your mind away from the panic, the faster it will subside. Remaining active and distracted prevents you from feeding the cycle of fearful thoughts that intensify the panic.

  • Seeking professional help: If panic attacks are frequent or intense, consider seeing a therapist. Speaking with a therapist or counselor who specializes in anxiety and panic disorders can be very helpful for learning skills to better manage your panic attacks. They may also recommend medication if your panic attacks are severe or persistent. A combination of therapy and medication is often the most effective approach.

With the proper planning and practice of coping strategies, you can overcome feelings of panic and regain a sense of control. Be patient through the process and know that there are many resources and treatments available to give you more control over your anxiety and worry. Staying dedicated to managing your panic will empower you and build your resilience and ability to navigate challenges with a sense of inner calm.

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