Over 3.1% of the US population suffers from panic attacks. That's nearly seven million individuals. Unfortunately, less than 5% of that 6.8 million is actually seeking treatment for General Anxiety Disorder (GAD). One of the most debilitating side effects of GAD? Panic attacks.
Knowing the signs and symptoms of panic attacks can help you or a loved one feel prepared for whatever life throws at you.
What are Panic Attacks?
A panic attack is a sudden onset of intense fear or anxiety that causes a physical response in the victim. They often come on without warning and may be triggered by any number of factors. Because of the sudden physical reaction, some panic attack sufferers may believe that they are having a heart attack or some other life-threatening condition.
Panic attacks may look different for different people, but there are a few general symptoms that manifest in most cases. These symptoms include:
- Sweating: Sweating is a normal fear response, but this normal reaction may increase dramatically during a panic attack, even as the victim feels cold or chilled.
- Shaking or trembling: As the body starts to react to the overwhelming feeling of danger, panic attack victims may begin to shake or tremble violently.
- Nausea: The intense physiological reaction to a panic attack can lead to nausea and increase the overall feeling of helplessness that the panic attack victim is dealing with.
- Feelings of Unreality or Detachment: The symptoms of a panic attack are not merely physical, and individuals who suffer from panic attacks often report a feeling of paralyzing fear and helplessness
- Rapid Heart Rate: Because it is a fear response, panic attacks often cause the heart rate to increase dramatically as the body enters a basic "fight or flight" mode.
A panic attack on its own may not be physically dangerous, but if left untreated, it can lead to greater health complications, including:
- Isolation: Individuals who suffer from panic attacks may find themselves reluctant to go outside, which can lead to increased isolation and distance from friends and family who may be able to help.
- Depression: The same feelings of fear, helplessness, and imminent danger that make a panic attack so vicious can weigh on an individual's mind and increase their risk of mental illness.
Treatment Options for Panic Attacks
In light of the potential dangers that panic attacks can create, seeking treatment is absolutely imperative. Some treatments that can go a long way towards reducing the effects of panic, include solutions like the following...
Medication may not completely stop panic attacks, but it can reduce the severity and frequency that an individual suffers from attacks.
Medication that May Help
A selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) will decrease the anticipatory anxiety that often accompanies panic attacks and help make the sensations that an individual experiences feel far less intense. The most commonly prescribed SSRIs in the United States include:
- fluoxetine (Prozac)
- paroxetine (Paxil)
- sertraline (Zoloft)
Expect to wait a few weeks after starting any medication to see dramatic results.
Why Medication May Help
Medication helps control and treat panic attacks because it treats the physiological responses that trigger attacks in the first place. By alleviating some of the physical effects, most medications give an individual time to analyze perceived threats and thereby dismiss the panic attack. This response is opposed to being caught up in the spiraling fear and anxiety that make panic attacks such viciously unpleasant events.
Oftentimes, medication works well with the following treatment option...
Psychotherapy is a form of therapy that is specifically designed to help with mental illnesses like General Anxiety Disorder. During psychotherapy, a licensed professional will walk you through some of the signs of an impending panic attack and help you recognize triggers, coping mechanisms, and ways to avoid having a panic attack.
While this treatment may take more time, it has a high rate of success and will help you deal with the root issues underlying your anxiety.
Why Psychotherapy May Help
Psychotherapy can help because, as mentioned above, it addresses the root of the issue rather than just treating the symptoms. General Anxiety Disorder manifests in many individuals differently, and so having a specialist who can help you deal with your unique situation will be far more beneficial than any kind of "one size fits all" approach. The more personalized, the better the results.
Medications and therapy are great. Fortunately, they can also be paired with the following treatment option...
3. Aerobic Exercise
Moving into more "at-home" treatment, aerobic exercises can significantly impact the severity of a panic attack and make it far more manageable.
Even if you can only spare thirty minutes out of your day, a fast-paced walk can increase your aerobic health and make sure that your heart and your lungs are ready to deal with the threat of a panic attack.
Why Aerobic Exercise May Help
Aerobic exercise strengthens the heart and the lungs, which directly relates to an individual's ability to control their breathing. Most of the fear and helplessness associated with panic attacks comes from the breathlessness and lack of oxygen that flows to the brain. By boosting your ability to control your breathing, you're removing one of the variables that can make panic attacks so frightening to experience.
More than that, exercising can release "feel-good" chemicals. It's a win-win situation. The following can also help to this end...
4. Relaxation Techniques
It may seem cliche, but practicing muscle relaxation techniques can help prepare you for the sudden onset of a panic attack.
There are plenty of sources online that can walk you through relaxing individual muscle groups one at a time. Using these sources daily can help you form habits of relaxation and maintain a greater level of control over the different muscle groups in your body.
Why Relaxation Techniques May Help
As mentioned above, one of the main symptoms of a panic attack is an uncontrollable trembling. This loss of control over basic body functions can increase the fear and anxiety felt during a panic attack.
By learning to control your muscles, you are giving yourself the tools you need to take back control of your body. This control will give you a greater sense of security and safety.
Relaxation often pairs well with the following...
Self-care may sound like just another trendy buzzword, but it usually refers to deliberate actions taken to restore an internal feeling of peace or security.
Take note of places where you feel safe and secure, and know that the panic attacks and anxiety that you suffer are absolutely not any indication of your strength of mind or security.
Why Self-Care May Help
Panic attacks and other manifestations of General Anxiety Disorder can hurt an individual's self-perception. This will harm their ability to view themselves as objectively as their friends and family do.
By surrounding yourself with supportive people and making sure to cultivate an environment where you feel in control and safe with your surroundings, you can greatly reduce your vulnerability in the event of a panic attack.
While self-care can be practiced anywhere, the following technique is best used under the guidance of a licensed professional...
Desensitization refers to the deliberate exposure of an individual to a situation that causes them physical or mental distress.
Do not attempt this unless you are confident in your ability to handle the situation.
If you find yourself growing anxious any time you have to go grocery shopping, for example, take a loved one with you and go to the grocery store repeatedly until you start to reduce your level of anxiety.
Why Desensitization May Help
Desensitization is basically exposure therapy. The main reasoning behind the process is that if an individual is repeatedly exposed to a situation that causes them mental distress, the power that that situation holds will eventually be reduced.
Again, this treatment may not work for everyone, so please be careful with your mental health, and approach this particular treatment only if you have the support system in place to deal with it.
The following treatment is much easier to do, and you can practice it anywhere...
7. Focus Objects
A focus object is any object that you can carry with you that helps you focus.
Finding a Focus Object
Find something small and portable that can fit in a pocket or a purse. It can help you find something to focus on during a panic attack rather than the fear and the physiological response. Look for something that feels personal to you and brings you comfort when you see it!
Why Focus Objects May Help
Many of the effects of a panic attack come from an individual's inability to focus on anything other than the increased paranoia, anxiety, and fear that accompany the attack. By carrying a picture, a fidget object, or even a small stuffed animal, you're giving yourself something else to fixate upon until the attack passes. An object with strong sentimental value will also help you feel safe and reassured.
The following treatment isn't portable like this one, although it can be just as effective for some people...
8. Social Therapy
Similar to psychotherapy, social therapy is a treatment that allows an individual to talk through the anxieties that are troubling them. It may not be as specifically GAD-focused as psychotherapy would be, but it provides a good starting point that can still reduce anxiety.
It will allow an individual to work through some of their issues in a safe and nonthreatening environment. This safe environment can help shore up mental health and reduce the severity of a future panic attack.
Why Social Therapy May Help
As mentioned above, any efforts taken to reduce the triggers that can prompt panic attacks will go a long way towards restoring mental calm and reducing the likelihood of a future attack. Again, social therapy may not be as effective as therapy that specifically aims to reduce general anxiety. It can, however, still be a great way to start seeking treatment.
The following treatment? You can practice it anywhere...
Meditation isn't always a religious practice, but rather another form of breathing or calming exercises that can help you strengthen your core muscles and slow your heart rate.
In addition, it can help promote mindfulness and relaxation, which will not completely prevent panic attacks, but may help the individual stave off more of the fear and helplessness associated with an attack. If you are spiritual or religious, a more spiritually-minded form of meditation can also help affirm and reinforce your relationship with yourself and with others.
Why Meditation May Help
Meditation strengthens the muscles of your core, as well as your lungs and your heart. By taking the time to breathe and isolate these specific parts of your body, you may be able to prepare for panic attacks before they happen and alleviate some of the worst symptoms.
In addition, meditation can promote greater mental calm, which in turn can protect you from some of the anxiety, fear and paranoia that are so common among those who suffer from General Anxiety Disorder.
Just be sure to clear breathing exercises with a physician first, as some people cannot do certain breathing techniques. The following technique should also only be used after consulting a licensed professional...
10. Intentional Dissociation
Dissociation is basically any form of "checking out" that can range from mild daydreaming to a complete lack of awareness and total separation from the outside world. In the context of panic attacks, dissociation often takes the form of "picturing a happy place" or a different surrounding in order to reduce anxiety and stress.
Why Intentional Dissociation May Help
By blocking out your surroundings, you may be able to reduce the amount of stress you have to deal with during an attack. This action will help to ease your body out of "panic mode" and give you enough space to breathe. Then, you can get your emotional state back under control until the panic attack has passed and normal function is restored.
What's most important for people suffering from panic attacks to know?...
If you are struggling with panic attacks and anxiety, first know that you are not alone. Millions of other individuals around the world suffer from the same thing that you're going through, and there is help available for those who seek it out.
Your friends and loved ones will be willing to support you as you seek treatment for General Anxiety Disorder, and they will be with you every step of the way as you fight for the freedom and safety that you deserve to enjoy.