- What is a panic attack?
A panic attack is an experience in which a person feels a number of intense physical and emotional symptoms. The sufferer may feel that they are going crazy, having a heart attack, or even dying. A panic attack usually lasts a few minutes and then passes on its own, but to the sufferer these few minutes can feels like an eternity. In many cases, the person does not identify the condition and fears that he/she is having a heart attack or suffering from some other serious physical problem.
2. What does a panic attack look like?
A panic attack has both physical and emotional symptoms:
- Physical: Physical symptoms may include a rapid pulse, hot flashes and sweating In many cases there is also shortness of breath, a sensation of choking and even difficulty moving one’s arms and legs.
- Emotional: During a panic attack, a person may feel that he/she is dying or going crazy. In other cases, there is also a feeling of disconnection, as though he/she is not really there, or that a person has left his/her body.
3. What causes panic attacks?
Panic attacks stem from the autonomic nervous system. The purpose of this system is to regulate excitement and relaxation responses by means of changes in heart rate, sweating and muscle tension etc. From an evolutionary standpoint, the system developed to enable us to contend with challenges and dangers, such as pursuit, battle or threats – what we call the “fight-or-flight response.” During a panic attack, the autonomic nervous system goes into overdrive. The sufferer feels that there is a terrible danger when the threat is actually minimal or at times objectively non-existent. Thoughts can also arouse or relax the system, thus contributing to, or preventing, panic attacks. For example, during a panic attack, the fear of dying, of going crazy or of having a heart attack stimulates the autonomic system even more strongly, intensifying the sensations. On the other hand, the correct interpretation of the physical signals and the understanding that the attack cannot really cause harm may significantly decrease its severity.
4. Who does it happen to?
A panic attack stems from a combination of physical and emotional causes. Vulnerability to panic attacks is apparently hereditary. In times of extreme pressure and tension, the physical system is overburdened, which may cause this vulnerability to become a reality. In other cases, a panic attack is a result of a traumatic event, which causes strong and prolonged stimulation of the autonomic nervous system. Research shows that a significant number of trauma victims are likely to suffer a panic attack following a traumatic experience.
Surprisingly, panic attacks are very common. There are even reports indicating that one in three people will experience at least one panic attack during their lifetime. It is important to understand that a panic attack does not indicate any physical problem, insanity or personal weakness. The effective treatment of panic attacks proves that the condition is reversible and, with professional help, it can disappear as suddenly as it began.
5. What is panic disorder?
When panic attacks occur unexpectedly over the course of more than one month, one may be experiencing panic disorder. After several attacks, a sufferer begins to dread their next attack, and may start avoiding certain activities or social events due to the possibility of an attack’s occurrence. Paradoxically, this dread stimulates the occurrence of more attacks, creating a vicious cycle.
6. Can it be treated?
The treatment for panic disorder is very effective. The body sends a warning before a panic attack and psychological therapy helps a sufferer identify those signs and prevent the attack before it occurs. Additionally, through techniques of controlled exposure, the attacks can be gradually neutralized and coping mechanisms can be improved. Sometimes, psychological therapy is combined with medication. There are many types of drugs that help to reduce anxiety; however, these drugs may also have many side effects, and some are even addictive with prolonged use. For that reason, they should be used as auxiliary tools in treating anxiety and not as the sole solution. Their goal is to decrease the anxiety temporarily, enabling referral for combined psychological treatment.