Panic attacks can be one of the scariest experiences to go through. The attacks can range from a sudden surge of fear that only lasts a few minutes to heart palpitations and shortness of breath that mimic a heart attack.
But it’s not just the symptoms that make panic attacks so debilitating. It’s also the feeling of being out of control. Not knowing why you’re having one — or when an attack might strike next — can make daily tasks a challenge.
If you are experiencing panic attacks, you may have a type of anxiety disorder called panic disorder. It is estimated that almost 5 percent of American adults will experience panic disorder at some point in their lives.
The good news is that there are steps you can take to help lessen the severity of the attacks. Plus, the long-term treatments available for managing anxiety and panic attacks are promising.
Symptoms of a panic attack can vary from person to person and even from attack to attack. Celeste Viciere, LMHC, who provides cognitive behavioral therapy, says that’s why panic attacks can be tricky: when people describe a panic attack to her, they often say: “It felt like I was having a heart attack, and I couldn’t breathe.” However, everyone can experience different symptoms.
Most panic attacks last less than 30 minutes — with the average lasting around 10 minutes — although some of the symptoms may last a lot longer. During this time, you may experience a need to flee until the attack is over.
Although the average length of a panic attack may not seem like a long time, for the person experiencing a full-blown attack, it can feel like an eternity.
So how can you identify if you are having a panic attack?
The following list of symptoms may be your first indication that you are experiencing an attack:
- chest pains and feeling weak, like you are going to collapse
- shortness of breath (many people experience this as hyperventilation; some people also experience a choking sensation)
- heart palpitations and chest pain
- trembling or shaking
- feeling detached from your settings and dizzy
- numbness or tingling sensation
When you are in a full-blown panic attack, it can be challenging to stop it. Viciere says the reason why it feels so difficult is that the physical symptoms actually cause you to panic even more.
If you have ruled out other medical diagnoses, and your doctor has confirmed that you are having panic attacks, Viciere says to try and be intentional in telling yourself that you are going to be okay.
“Your mind can play tricks on you, and it can feel like you are dying because of the physical symptoms, but if you tell yourself you are going to be okay, it can help to calm yourself down,” she explains.
When you are experiencing a panic attack, she suggests you work on slowing down your breaths. You can do this by counting backward and taking slow, deep breaths.
During the attack, your breaths will feel shallow, and it may feel like you are running out of air. That’s why Viciere suggests these steps:
- Start by breathing in.
- As you are breathing in, count in your head (or out loud) for about 6 seconds to make your in-breath last longer.
- It’s also important that you breathe through your nose.
- Then breathe out for about 7 to 8 seconds.
- Repeat this method a few times during the attack.
In addition to breathing exercises, you can also practice relaxation techniques. Focusing as much energy as possible on getting your body to relax is essential.
Some people find success by regularly practicing yoga, meditation, and breathing exercises when they are not having a panic attack. This helps them access these techniques more quickly during an attack.
There are many ways to treat panic disorder and panic attacks including CBT (psychotherapy), exposure therapy, and medications.
Otherwise known as “talk therapy,” psychotherapy can help you understand your diagnosis and how it impacts your life. Your therapist will also work with you to develop strategies that help decrease the severity of the symptoms.
One psychotherapy technique that has been proven successful in treating panic disorder and attacks is CBT. This form of therapy emphasizes the important role that thinking has in how we feel and what we do.
CBT teaches you new ways of thinking, acting, and reacting to situations that cause anxiety. It also teaches you how to view panic attacks differently and demonstrates ways to reduce anxiety. Plus, you can learn how to change unhealthy thoughts and behaviors that bring on panic attacks.
But if therapy isn’t something you can access, Viciere recommends the following activities to help you get a better understanding of your triggers:
- Journal your feelings. Write down the times when you find yourself feeling overwhelmed and anxious.
- Journal your thoughts. Since most of us deal with negative thoughts we may not even be aware of, it can be helpful to write these thoughts down. This can help you begin to understand how your inner thoughts play a role in your mindset.
- Daily breathing exercises. Another helpful technique is to work on breathing exercises daily, even when you don’t have a panic attack. When you’re more in sync with your breaths, you can become more self-aware of when you are not taking them.
Even though panic attacks can feel like a heart attack or other serious condition, it will not cause you to die. However, panic attacks are serious and need to be treated.
If you find yourself experiencing any of these symptoms on a regular basis, it’s essential that you contact your physician for further help.