A panic attack is characterized by a sense of intense fear, usually without any apparent reason. Panic attacks tend to occur at any given time and can even happen while you are sleeping. A panic attack usually lasts 15 – 30 minutes.
Even though panic attacks are often referred to as anxiety attacks, the accepted medical term is panic attack instead of anxiety attack. Panic attacks are however a symptom of most of the anxiety disorders. The main difference between panic disorder and the other anxiety disorders is that in panic disorder panic attacks occur without any specific reason while in the other anxiety disorders a trigger can usually be identified.
Because the symptoms of a panic attack are so severe and closely related to the symptoms of a heart attack it is very likely that you can confuse the two conditions and fear that you may be having a heart attack and may die as a result. This added fear can actually worsen the panic attack. Some other more serious conditions can also present with similar symptoms, so it is advisable to consult your doctor after a panic attack to make sure that you are not suffering from a more serious underlying illness.
Most people will experience a panic attack at least once in their lives in response to a stressful situation. A panic attack is therefore nothing to be ashamed of as it affects most people at some time. When the panic attacks start to negatively impact your daily life it may give rise to panic disorder, which even though it is more severe than just a once off panic attack, is still a treatable condition.
A panic attack is a frightful experience and even though you may not remember the following steps during an attack, doing so may help the attack to pass quicker and even be less severe.
- Don’t run, even if you feel like it. Stay where you are if it is at all possible. If you are experiencing a panic attack while you are driving, pull over and park your car in safe place.
- Focus on something else. This does not mean that you should try and ignore the panic attack, but rather that you should look at something visible to distract your attention away from the attack.
- Slow down your breathing. Slowly count to three while you breathe in and then count to three again while you breathe out. You can also tell yourself out loud that you are not going crazy. If you can talk you know you can breathe.
- Acknowledge and challenge your fear. Try to realize what it is you fear and then assure yourself that what you fear can’t harm you and that the emotion of fear will soon pass.
- Creative visualization. This simply means to rather imagine a place or an event where you felt safe and relaxed. Having a photo of such a place or event can help you to visualize it better.
- Do not resist an attack. Trying to fight a panic attack can actually worsen it and you may even end up feeling more helpless if you fail to resist it. Rather acknowledge that you are having an attack, but that you will not die from it or go crazy.
If your panic attacks are associated with an anxiety disorder, it is important that you should know that treatment is available. Cognitive behavioral therapy has been used with much success in many people who have overcome anxiety. Small adjustments to your lifestyle, such as exercising more or consuming less caffeine and alcohol can also greatly help you to regain control over your own life. You can be the victor over anxiety instead of the victim of it.
Stöppler, Melissa C. “Panic Attacks (Panic Disorder)” MedicineNet.com. 2011. Medicinenet.com (November 7, 2012) http://www.medicinenet.com/panic_disorder/article.htm
Simon, Harvey; Zieve, David. “Anxiety Disorders”. University of Maryland Medical Center. 2009. Umm.edu (November 7, 2012) http://www.umm.edu/patiented/articles/what_anxiety_disorders_000028_1.htm
“Panic Disorder – Self-help” NHS choices. 2012. Nhs.uk (November 7, 2012) http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Panic-disorder/Pages/self%20help.aspx