A panic attack is a sudden surge of overwhelming anxiety and fear. Your heart pounds and you can’t breathe. You feel dizzy and sick to your stomach. You may even feel like you’re dying or going crazy. Left untreated, panic attacks can lead to panic disorder and other problems. They may even cause you to withdraw from normal activities. But panic is treatable – and the sooner you seek help, the better. With treatment, you can reduce or eliminate the symptoms of panic and regain control of your life.
Understanding Panic Attacks
In many cases, panic attacks strike out of the blue, without any warning. Often, there is no clear reason for the attack. They may even occur when you’re relaxed or asleep.
A panic attack may be a one-time occurrence, but many people experience repeat episodes. Recurrent panic attacks are often triggered by a specific situation, such as crossing a bridge or speaking in public – especially if that situation has caused a panic attack before. Usually, the panic-inducing situation is one in which you feel endangered and unable to escape.
You may experience one or more panic attacks, yet be otherwise perfectly happy and healthy. Or your panic attacks may occur as part of another disorder, such as panic disorder, social phobia, or depression. Regardless of the cause, panic attacks are treatable. There are many effective treatments and coping strategies you can use to deal with the symptoms.
Signs and symptoms of a panic attack
Panic attacks often strike when you’re away from home, but they can happen anywhere and at any time. You may have one while you’re in a store shopping, walking down the street, driving in your car, or sitting on the couch at home.
The signs and symptoms of a panic attack develop abruptly and usually reach their peak within 10 minutes. Most panic attacks end within 20 to 30 minutes, and they rarely last more than an hour.
A full-blown panic attack includes a combination of the following signs and symptoms:
Shortness of breath or hyperventilation
Heart palpitations or a racing heart
Chest pain or discomfort
Trembling or shaking
Feeling unreal or detached from your surroundings
Nausea or upset stomach
Feeling dizzy, lightheaded, or faint
Numbness or tingling sensations
Hot or cold flashes
Fear of dying, losing control, or going crazy
Treatment for panic attacks and panic disorder
Panic attacks and panic disorder are treatable conditions. They can usually be treated successfully with self-help strategies or a series of therapy sessions.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive Behavioral TherapyCognitive behavioral therapy is generally viewed as the most effective form of treatment for panic attacks, panic disorder, and agoraphobia. Cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on the thinking patterns and behaviors that are sustaining or triggering the panic attacks. It helps you look at your fears in a more realistic light.
For example, if you had a panic attack while driving, what is the worst thing that would really happen? While you might have to pull over to the side of the road, you are not likely to crash your car or have a heart attack. Once your learn that nothing truly disastrous is going to happen, the experience of panic becomes less terrifying.
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Exposure therapy for panic attacks and panic disorder
In exposure therapy for panic disorder, you are exposed to the physical sensations of panic in a safe and controlled environment, giving you the opportunity to learn healthier ways of coping. You may be asked to hyperventilate, shake your head from side to side, or hold your breath. These different exercises cause sensations similar to the symptoms of panic. With each exposure, you become less afraid of these internal bodily sensations and feel a greater sense of control over your panic.
If you have agoraphobia, exposure to the situations you fear and avoid is also included in treatment. As in exposure therapy for specific phobias, you face the feared situation until the panic begins to go away. Through this experience, you learn that the situation isn’t harmful and that you have control over your emotions.
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