Panic attacks interfere with the lives of 2.4 million Americans. Panic attacks can be debilitating and affect a person’s day to day life. Each panic attack causes more panic. Over time, the person is in constant fear of having another panic attack. This can lead to additional emotional and physical issues such as depression, alcoholism and drug abuse.
Panic disorder is more common in women than men and usually begins in late adolescence to early adulthood.
What is a Panic Attack?
- A panic attack is different from the usual anxiety and anxiety disorder in that:
- Panic attacks erupt seemingly out of nowhere and for no reason.
- There doesn’t need to be anxiety at the moment to cause a panic attack.
- The reaction is usually disproportionate to the effect.
- This means that while a trigger may occur, it is usually not a danger or threat to the person.
Symptoms of Panic Attack
- Panic attack symptoms include (but are not limited to):
- Difficulty breathing
- Profuse sweating
- Racing or rapid heart rate
- The feeling of dread that is intense
- Feeling or sensation of being smothered or choking
- Feeling faint or dizzy
- Shaking and Trembling
- Stomach ache, nausea or “sour stomach.”
- Finger and toes tingling or numbness
- Hot flashes and chills
- Fear of losing control or that of imminent death
Beyond these typical symptoms, one of the worst and constant symptoms is the fear of having another panic attack. People with panic disorder can worry about having a panic attack so much that they throw themselves into the throes of another panic attack. It is a vicious circle until controlled.
What does a Panic Attack feel like?
Imagine that your deepest fear has come to life in front of you and threatens to harm, kill, or take control of you or someone you love. Perhaps it’s a monster, a large dog or the feeling of dying in an aeroplane accident.
You want to run away and save yourself. The terror, though, is overwhelming as your fear weighs down upon you. You are stuck. You can’t act or move. You breathe heavily, and your heart is about to bust out of your chest. You feel like crying and vomiting. There’s no way to get away from the danger and save yourself or your loved one. You’re stuck, and you’re most likely going to die at the hands of your worst fear.
Imagine, now, that there is no large dog. No monster. No imminent death by falling out of the sky on a plane.
This feeling of the deepest fear and dread came out of nowhere with no warning and was unreal. How would you feel? Confused? Frustrated? Are you going crazy? What’s wrong with you?
And then, all those feelings that you had because you just panicked for no reason start to merge themselves into another episode. Another panic attack. Here you go again. You feel like crying because you know what’s happening. But you can’t cry, and you’re in the midst of it already.
This is the life of a person with panic disorder, and that is what a panic attack feels like.
One of the worst things about panic attacks is that you feel lucky to be by yourself if it does happen. Sure, it makes you more scared because you’re alone, but at least you know what you’re going through and what it feels like…even if you don’t understand it.
If a person has a panic attack and they are in the presence of others, it is even more frustrating. No one else around is experiencing the event, and they can’t understand what is wrong or why the person is panicking for no reason. And one of the worst things to say to a person with panic disorder amid a panic attack is, “Just try to calm down.”
So, the person with a panic attack feels like running away. Often, they do.
How is Panic Disorder Diagnosed?
There are no specific lab tests that Who can do to diagnose panic disorder. However, a person will usually have panic attacks with one, several, or all symptoms listed above.
Doctors will first do physical tests that target the symptoms to ensure no underlying physiological problem is causing the symptoms.
If a physical illness is not found, a physician may refer the patient to mental health professionals, psychologists, or psychiatrists for more specialized testing and observation. These professionals are highly trained in treating mental ailments, and they will use a specialized interview and assessment to further evaluate for panic disorder.
Based upon the severity, duration and frequency of the panic attacks, the doctor will determine if the ailment is, in fact, a panic disorder. Another key factor in diagnosis is the patient’s attitude and behaviour toward their current life situation. If a person exhibits an attitude of melancholy or is “down in the dumps” about life, depression may be present due to anxiety and panic.
What Causes Panic Attacks?
There is no exact known reason (you can start to see why the panic disorder is so frustrating) on what causes panic disorder and panic attacks. Studies have only suggested the reasons a person with panic disorder may strike with the ailment.
Panic attacks may be caused by a combination of environmental and biological factors. Many parts of the brain are involved with the regulation and reaction to fear and anxiety. Further studying is being done by the scientific community to further understand the way the brain handles anxiety and fear. The hope is that this continued study will aid in the development of more advanced treatments for anxiety and panic attacks and disorders.
- Family Factors: It has been shown that panic disorder may run in families, passed down from one or both parents much in the same as eye and hair colour are passed down.
- Problems within the Brain: Panic disorder may also be caused by abnormalities in the brain’s functions or simple chemical imbalances that Who can correct with medication.
- Drug and Alcohol Abuse: Illegally abusing substances may contribute to anxiety, panic attacks and depression.
- Life Stress Events: Major life changes and stresses can trigger the onset of panic attacks and panic disorder. Examples of these kinds of life stressors may include the death of a loved one, a terminal illness or even the loss of a job.
How to Deal with Panic Attacks in Children
The first step in helping your child deal with panic attacks is to educate them. Children are still developing, and a panic attack will cause them to constantly become more confused and anxious. Adults have trouble dealing with panic attacks when they know what is going on. You can imagine what it must be like for a child to go through this.
Try using these Home Techniques for Easing Your Child’s Fear and Panic.
A Child may need help in learning how to relax. Even letting a child know that it’s okay to relax can be a huge help!
Teaching your child to slow breathing, in through the nose and out through the mouth, can have an almost instantaneous effect. Let your child know that we tend to breathe deeper when we are panicked or anxious, and that tends to make us “fuzzy” or dizzy.
Relaxing the Muscles:
This is another great one that works well. Tensing various muscles in the body and then relaxing those muscles puts the body more at ease. There is also something known as the “rag doll” approach with children, and have them “flop” so that their whole body relaxes at once.
Put it in Perspective (PIIP):
This is a technique taught at UPENN’s Resiliency Course. By teaching your child to practice realistic thinking, you can help them control the panic by putting their thoughts in perspective. Many children and adults are “catastrophizers” when we think about the worst thing possible that could happen. Instead, teach children to think about the worst thing that could happen, then about the best thing, and then what is most likely to happen.
The PIIP method has a purpose. The mind is already thinking about the worst-case scenario and is in panic mode. Thinking about the best possible outcome next brings the body and mind more towards the centre and rational thinking. At this point, it will be easier to think about the most likely scenario. Keep in mind that while the worst and best may both be exaggerated, the point of the exercise is to bring the mind back to a neutral, even-keeled approach to the situation.
To help put your child’s thoughts in perspective, help them by asking the following questions:
- What would be bad about that?
- What happens then?
- What would that lead to?
You can use these questioning techniques for the “worst”, “best”, and “most likely” scenarios.
Night Time Panic Attacks
Nighttime panic attacks can be the worst. Like most panic attacks, these tend to come without warning and with no trigger. Some parents mistakenly think that young children had a “bad dream” instead of realizing they may have nighttime panic attacks.
Nocturnal panic attacks demonstrate the same symptoms as daytime panic attacks, but it worsens because of sleep loss. While most panic attacks, daytime or nighttime, will last less than 10 minutes, it may take more time to calm down enough to go back to sleep.
This can cause more anxiousness in older children, for instance, those in junior high school and above, because they know they have to go back to sleep and rest for school or activities the next morning.
If you or your child is having nighttime panic attacks, try to use the relaxation techniques mentioned above. It is okay to relax your child by reassuring them that there is still plenty of time to sleep and feel rested, or in the most extreme cases, letting them know that it may be okay to stay home from school the next day if they are that worried about it.
Note: If this happens too often, then Who may need counselling or medication to ensure that your child can rest at night. Also, keep in mind that going to school the next day maybe the actual cause for the anxiety and panic in the first place.
How to Control a Panic Attack
Unfortunately, there is no way to control a panic attack from occurring. While it is possible, through medication, counselling or relaxation techniques, to control the anxiety people feel, once a panic attack is upon us, it must be dealt with.
However, there are certain things we can do amid a panic attack to better cope with it and get through it, keeping in mind that it will probably be over in a short period.
The key here is the ability to remember to practice these control techniques when having a panic attack. In most cases, the hardest thing to do during a panic attack is to think calmly and logically, and it is a matter of practice.
Here is the more detailed instruction on how to practice the relaxations mentioned above:
- Breathing techniques: Breath through the nose and hold it for 5 seconds with your eyes closed. Exhale slowly with your eyes open.
- Muscle relaxation techniques: Start with the arms and tense the muscles for 5 seconds before relaxing them. Work your way down the body, concentrating on all the major muscle groups.
- Mild exercise such as walking or yoga: Don’t run away. However, simply getting up from a desk or situation where you feel the onset of the panic attack and going for a brisk walk may help control the severity of the attack.
What are the Treatments for Panic Attack Disorder
While many panic attacks and anxiety disorders result from an innate fear, for instance, a fear of flying or claustrophobia, panic attacks do not have triggers.
If the panic attack is caused by anxiety due to a fear, then the best method of treatment is understanding what the trigger is and learning how to control that fear, through counselling, for instance. For some, the “facing your fear” method will not work, but it is very effective for many more.
Joining a support group is another good way of dealing with panic attacks. Support groups are so effective because they are filled with people who also suffer from panic attacks and relate much better than anyone who has never had anxiety or panic attacks.
Therapy sessions with a counsellor or other mental health professionals are also effective because they can help those with panic attacks understand what causes their attacks and how to best deal with them. Therapy sessions also act as an outlet for the frustration that comes with panic disorder.
Medication is not always the best route, but it may be used effectively with therapy to help control the anxiety that eventually leads to panic attacks.