A panic attack sparks the sudden onset of intense fear and discomfort. When this occurs, it can be extremely disturbing. Panic attacks include a range of symptoms and may be caused by a variety of factors. In this article, we explain what exactly a panic attack is, so you can recognize when one occurs. It’s also important to distinguish an anxiety and panic attack. Lastly, we include some tips on how you can deal with a panic attack and calm yourself when everything starts to feel out of control.
What Is a Panic Attack?
A panic attack causes a sudden upsurge of fear or panic that peaks within minutes. You may also experience the following symptoms of a panic attack:
- Palpitations, pounding heart, or increased heart rate
- Trembling or shaking
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Chills or heat sensations
- Nausea or abdominal stress
- Feeling like you’re choking
- Shortness of breath or a feeling of smothering
- Feeling dizzy, faint, light-headed, or dizzy
- Numbness or tingling sensations
- Derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (feeling detached from yourself)
- Fear of dying or heart attack
- Fear of losing control
It is also possible to experience limited-symptom panic attacks. This is when you experience fewer than four of the above panic attack symptoms.
Panic attack symptoms can be frightening. People who experience multiple panic attacks will do anything to avoid another one. This may require avoiding panic-inducing triggers, such as exercise (since it increases the heart rate) or stressful situations and places.
The Causes of a Panic Attack
Panic attacks can have a number of causes. Symptoms of panic attacks can occur both when you’re in a calm state or an anxious state.
While panic attacks typically stem from panic disorder, they can also occur as a result of another mental health condition. For example, if you struggle with a social anxiety disorder, you may experience a panic attack when giving a speech in front of an audience. You could also suffer panic symptoms as someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder if you can’t carry out your rituals or compulsions.
It is not precisely clear what causes of panic attacks and panic disorders. Having said that, panic disorder can run in families. Research also finds that major life events and social anxiety triggers can play a role, including:
- Starting college or graduating from college
- Entering the workplace
- Having a baby
- Getting married
Other stressful events can trigger panic attacks, including:
- The death of a loved one
- Relationship breakup
- Job loss
Medical conditions, mental health issues, and other physical factors can underlie panic attacks. For example, the following could influence panic attack symptoms:
- Cardiac problems
- Overactive thyroid gland
- Low blood sugar
- Stimulating use (e.g. cocaine, amphetamine, caffeine)
- Withdrawal from medication
Panic Attack vs. Anxiety Attack
Panic attacks are different from anxiety attacks in several important ways. An anxiety attack is an intense or extended episode of anxiety. It is more severe than the normal symptoms of anxiety but not as severe as a panic attack. An anxiety attack usually includes one or more of the following symptoms:
- Feeling restless, wound-up, or on edge
- Difficulty concentrating or your mind going blank
- Muscle tension and chest pain
- Difficulty controlling worries
An anxiety attack involves a period of intense apprehension about the future. They can also occur before panic attacks. One of the key differences between an anxiety attack and a panic attack is that the former usually features worries about something in particular. Panic attacks, on the other hand, may not involve stress relating to future events. Panic attacks are the body’s response to the perceived threat of imminent danger.
Also, unlike panic attacks, anxiety attacks usually aren’t signs of an anxiety disorder. An anxiety attack is a more extreme form of the anxiety we feel in response to stressful situations. A final distinction between the two is that a panic attack is abrupt and short-lived while an anxiety attack is gradual and more prolonged.
How to Ease a Panic Attack
Everything can feel overwhelming and chaotic when you have a panic attack. But there are many techniques you can use to help calm things down. Here are some essential tips if you have panic disorder and start to experience a panic attack:
- Stay where you are. Make sure you’re in a safe space so you have time to gather yourself. Be mindful of the experience and recognize that the experience is short-lived and will pass.
- People often hyperventilate during a panic attack. By slowing down your breathing in a controlled way, you can help lessen panic attack symptoms like chest pain.
- Distract yourself. While it can be hard to focus on anything else during a panic attack, shifting your attention, even in a minor way, can be helpful. For example, if you feel overcome by fears of impending disaster, concentrate on something else. Look at something that interests or comforts you.
- Challenge your thoughts. Irrational thoughts can take over as your body experiences panic. You may think you’re having a heart attack and about to die. It can be helpful to challenge these facts to calm your reaction.
It may take you a while to receive a diagnosis of panic disorder. This is because people living with panic disorder may feel too embarrassed to tell anyone what’s going on. You may fear that others view you as a hypochondriac or being overdramatic.
Avoiding diagnosis and treatment means suffering in silence. Feeling ashamed, you may also hide from family, friends, and others who might be able to help. But panic disorders are treatable. Learn to recognize panic disorder and seek the help you need today.