A panic attack is a sudden and overwhelming surge of intense fear. The experience can be both terrifying and exhausting. It’s important to understand that a panic attack is not just something that only happens in the mind. The body reacts with a range of physiological symptoms such as dizziness, trembling and shaking, rapid heart rate, shortness of breath, and nausea. These physical reactions are accompanied by an intense feeling of dread or impending doom. The physical experience of a panic attack can be so intense that some people fear they are dying or having a heart attack.
Panic attacks can be a one-time occurrence or can become a pattern in someone’s life. They can strike “out of the blue” and without warning, or they can happen as a result of a trigger that causes fear or has brought on a panic attack in the past.
Some people experience panic attacks even though they are happy and healthy. Others experience panic attacks as a part of another disorder such as depression or social phobia.
Panic attacks are also known to occur during major life transitions such as graduating from college, getting married, or having a baby. An intensely stressful experience such as the death of a loved one, divorce, or job loss can also trigger panic attacks.
Diagnosis and Treatment
After a full evaluation and assessment, there are a variety of treatment options that are effective for panic attacks. It is important to rule out any medical conditions or physical causes when diagnosing a panic attack or panic disorder. Certain substances such as caffeine or other stimulants can cause a panic attack. Other issues such as high blood pressure or cardiac conditions can also bring on panic attacks.
Regardless of the cause, panic attacks are treatable. Therapy will allow you to understand what’s happening to your body and your mental state. This alone will help you get your confidence back. When you can recognize what is happening from the beginning, it’s much easier to get through the episode. In addition to psychoeducation, there are a variety of therapeutic approaches that are effective in treating panic attacks.
Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT)
Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is effective for treating panic attacks. CBT explores and restructures negative thinking patterns that can lead to fear and anxiety. In therapy and through the practices you take with you outside the session, you will learn to think in a manner that is ultimately much healthier and more realistic. CBT is effective for anxiety and depression and can make a major impact on a person’s life experience.
In addition to CBT, learning and practicing relaxation techniques are also helpful for panic attacks. Deep breathing is a technique that allows you to take control of your autonomic nervous system as it decreases the activity of your fight or flight system. The practice is like manually shifting gears in your nervous system and can be quite effective when you start to feel anxious or nervous.
In addition to deep breathing, other relaxation techniques that can be practiced are also explored.
Medication is an option for panic attacks in severe cases; however, it should not be the only approach used. Antidepressants can decrease anxiety and depression overall, which can help reduce the likelihood of a panic attack.
For immediate relief of anxiety or panic, benzodiazepines will bring calmness within about 30 minutes to an hour. However, benzodiazepines are not used for ongoing symptoms as they are highly addictive and have withdrawal symptoms.
Reach out today
Dr. Pasternak is a child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist specializing in ADHD, anxiety, and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. If you would like to book an appointment, you are welcome to call or fill out the contact form and click Send.
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