Have you ever seen a shadow of someone in your room at night after you’ve turned your lights off, and then turn on the lights in a hurry, forcing your suddenly uncooperative limbs to move to the light switch and fumbling with it before turning on the lights only to realise that it was an article of clothing or your chair? That sudden peak of fear, heart beating too quickly, the voice of reason being muted, heavy breathing, feeling of something being stuck in the throat, and the sudden drop of temperature is overwhelming, isn't it? Now, imagine the same, but for a longer period of time and you’ll get an idea of what a panic attack feels like.
A panic attack is often mistaken for a heart attack due to the similarities both share. It is a common anxiety disorder. When an individual has panic attacks persistently, that person is said to have panic disorder. Panic attacks can happen due to s specific cause. An example would be a person who is afraid of meeting people and getting a panic attack at a party. Panic attacks can occur without any trigger or specific cause as well.
How can one recognise a panic attack?
As mentioned above a few of the include excessive sweating, chest pain, increased heart rate, chest pressure, choking sensation, chills, shivering, shortness of breath, vomiting sensation, prickling sensation, light-headedness etc. Not everyone will have every single one of these symptoms. Some may only have a few. The best way to differentiate between getting surprised and having a panic attack is that the latter persists for at least a few minutes.
What causes a panic attack?
The specific cause of panic attack is, unfortunately, still unknown. However, some possible causes of panic attacks are genetics or heredity, having a sensitive central nervous system and fear mechanism. A speculated mechanism through which panic attacks persists is that the physical symptoms like increased heart rate, dizziness, shortness of breath, pain in the chest etc. is interpreted by our body as being in extreme danger. Our brain suddenly goes into overdrive mode, and we experience other sensations – our fight or flight mode gets activated causing an increase in such uncomfortable and supposedly threatening physical symptoms of anxiety (mentioned above), leading to an increase in anxiety causing a panic attack
Who has chances of getting panic attacks?
Anyone can have a panic attack at any point in their life. It is not exclusive to anyone or any group. However, research has found that women are more likely than men to get panic attacks. Nevertheless, this does not mean that men are immune to developing panic attacks or that all women will develop them. It is also suggested that individuals who have a blood relative with any mental health disorders have a higher chance than others without such a relative to develop any mental health disorder, including panic disorder.
How is panic disorder treated?
A psychologist or psychiatrist conducts assessments and tests, assesses the symptoms the client has and makes the diagnosis based on the medical and past history of the person. Panic attacks can be treated mainly using medication or through psychotherapy. Medication has been shown to be effective in managing panic attacks. A psychiatrist, upon making a diagnosis of panic disorder, would write a prescription for medication used for treating panic attacks. In the case of psychotherapy, cognitive behavioural therapy or any other therapeutic modality would be used to manage panic attacks. One mode of treatment might be more effective than the other for some people. Both medication and psychotherapy can be done together as well, based on the clinician’s suggestion.
When to start treatment?
Panic attacks disrupt our functioning, and there is a higher likelihood for it to continue occurring and increasingly cause problems in our day-to-day functioning. Anyone who is experiencing panic attacks would benefit greatly from treatment through medication or therapy. If you experience a debilitating amount of panic, it would be highly recommended to consult a mental health professional.
I felt like I was having a heart attack. But my doctors said that it was not a heart attack. Could it have been a panic attack?
Panic attacks are often mistaken as heart attacks due to the similarity in the symptoms. If you felt like you were having a heart attack, but were cleared by the doctor, there is a likelihood that what you experienced was a panic attack. In such cases, it would be beneficial to consult a mental health professional and voice your concern.
Self-help tips for effectively dealing with panic attacks
Sometimes, in some situations, medical help may not be available. In such scenarios, the following methods and tips can be followed for managing panic attacks.
Reduce caffeine intake. Caffeine produces effects similar to the fight or flight response that gets activated when having a panic attack.
When a worrying thought comes to mind, start by calmly asking yourself if the thought is rational and is a solvable issue.
Read and understand more about panic attacks. Increasing our knowledge about any mental health disorder plays a huge role in the management of it. However, make sure to read about it from credible sources, and when confused, clarify the doubts with a mental health professional.
Learn muscle relaxation techniques. The best way to learn muscle relaxation techniques would be by asking a mental health professional. This helps as during anxiety; our muscles get tensed. Relaxing these muscles reduces the tension, in turn reducing the anxiety.
Deep breathing. Take long deep breaths slowly through your nose, ensuring that your belly sticks out when breathing, showing that you have taken in breath as much as your body allows. Hold it and then slowly exhale through the mouth. Do this a few times till you feel a reduction in the anxiety. This helps as, during panic episodes, our breathing gets shortened, in turn causing an increase in anxiety. This technique reduces the shortening of breath and reduces anxiety.
Panic attacks though might seem harmless, since they do not occur throughout the day, are extremely debilitating. Additionally, it is hard to predict when a person would have a panic attack. In some cases, such an uncertainty can cause anticipatory anxiety and lead to a panic attack, meaning that the fear that a person could have a panic attack at any moment causes a panic attack.
If you feel as if you have panic attacks, observe yourself, take note of your symptoms, and make an appointment with a mental health professional.
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