Panic Attacks: What are they and how are they treated?
Updated: Aug 17, 2020
The day is unlike any other day.
You’re sitting at your desk with a mouse in one hand and a sandwich in the other with eyes glued to the computer screen. You sift through emails, check your social media accounts, check your bank account balance, and have fleeting thoughts of the sweet release of 5 o’clock.
Seemingly, out of nowhere, you start to feel some pressure and slight pain in your chest. You chalk it up to indigestion from the sandwich and get back to work.
The pain and pressure comes and goes but remains persistent and now has started to get a little annoying. You become a little more concerned but you reassure yourself you’re alright.
You notice that it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to concentrate and now it’s substantially more difficult to remain engaged on each task.
You start to tap your pen, shake your leg, chew on your lip, and shift in your seat.
Now you’re REALLY feeling uncomfortable and are quite sure that something is wrong.
Thoughts of panic begin to race in your head:
“Am I having a heart attack?”
“Am I going crazy?”
“It’s hard to tell what is real and what is not in this moment.”
“Should I go to the Emergency Room? They’ll certainly think I’m crazy then!
“Why won’t it stop?!”
Your heart begins to race, your palms begin to sweat, and it’s hard to keep a single thought straight in your head. Your breath rate increases and your adrenaline is running on overload.
Thoughts of impending doom begin to take over as you begin to ask yourself questions that you never thought you’d be asking:
“What if I’m dying?”
“How will may family fare without me?”
“What would my funeral be like?”
“I haven’t even come close to accomplishing what I want to in life; there’s still so much to be done!”
“I’m too young to die!”
“Why is this happening?!”
At this point, you’re convinced that your life is in danger and you go to the ER. You wait an hour before you’re called back, receive some mild sympathy from hospital staff, and you grow increasingly impatient as you wait to find out if you’re going to die.
“Why can’t they move faster?”
“Don’t they know that I’m dying?”
“What if I die while I’m left in this room waiting on them to come back?”
Again, you ask yourself “what is happening and why is it happening?”
Hospital staff runs an EKG and it comes back normal. They check your vitals and while they can tell that you have an elevated heart rate and blood pressure, they don’t seem to be convinced that you’re in immediate danger.
“What do they know that I don’t?” “How can they appear to be some calm and confident?”
The doctor comes in and reports that all tests have come back as normal and that you are going to be just fine.
The doctor FINALLY clarifies that what you are experiencing is known as a panic attack.
What is a panic attack?
A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause.
The signs and symptoms of a panic attack develop abruptly and usually reach their peak within 10 minutes. They rarely last more than an hour, with most ending within 20 to 30 minutes. Panic attacks can happen anywhere and at any time.
Panic attack symptoms include:
Shortness of breath or hyperventilation
Heart palpitations or racing heart
Chest pain or discomfort
Trembling or shaking
Feeling unreal or detached from your surroundings
Nausea or upset stomach
Feeling dizzy, light-headed, or faint
Numbness or tingling sensations
Hot or cold flashes
Fear of dying, losing control, or going crazy
What is panic disorder?
Many people have just one or two panic attacks in their lifetimes, and the problem goes away, perhaps when a stressful situation ends. But if you’ve had recurrent, unexpected panic attacks and spent long periods in constant fear of another attack, you may have a condition called panic disorder.
Although panic attacks themselves aren’t life-threatening, they can be frightening and significantly affect your quality of life. But treatment can be very effective.
Some sources cite that anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses in the US with 1 in 5 people experiencing a panic attack at least once in their lifetime. It is also reported that twice as many women compared to men experience anxiety disorders.
Anxiety is, by far, one of the most common conditions I treat in my practice. It is heartbreaking to see so many people experience such devastating conditions without understanding why or where the symptoms come from.
Let’s explore why you’re having a panic attack
Not only do I understand these experiences from a professional standpoint but from a personal one as well. The aforementioned story is one that I can personally relate to when I was experiencing panic disorder a few years ago.
I remember that the most debilitating part of experiencing panic attacks was the fear of having another one which, in turn, lead to having another attack! So not only are you experiencing one of the most horrifying experiences of your life but you then get sucked into what seems like a never-ending vortex of hopelessness, paralyzing fear, and powerlessness, growing deeper with each attack.
It. Is. A. Living. Hell!
What many clients have taught me, and I have learned myself, is that learning what was going on and why is some of the most powerful information that led to feeling better.
But seriously though…what is happening inside of my body during a panic attack? Where did it come from?
Essentially, your body’s “fight or flight” response has become activated, oftentimes for no apparent reason. It makes sense that this mechanism becomes activated while in the presence of an obvious threat, such as potentially being attacked by a bear or swerving to avoid a car accident.
However, it becomes more confusing when there is no apparent threat and this mechanism becomes activated anyway. Once activated, the hormone adrenaline is sent coursing through your body, putting you on high alert. In fact, the amount of adrenaline released during an attack is about 2.5 times more compared to while at rest.
Your breath rate increases, which sends blood to your muscles. Your breathing becomes fast and shallow, allowing you to take in more oxygen. Your blood sugar spikes and your senses get sharper. Your blood pools in the centermost area of your body to protect your vital organs. This is what leads to tingling, numbness, dizziness, and light-headedness.
All of these actions occur in order to prepare the body by giving it the energy it needs in order to confront a dangerous situation or get out of harm’s way.
Researchers claim that it is still unclear during panic attacks as to why the body perceives there to be a threat to our survival when there does not appear to be a clear cause.
However, based on my research and clinical experience, I have come to learn that the cause is, in fact, present, it is just out of our conscious awareness.
In other words, the mind and body has interpreted something in our environment to be a threat but this message never makes its way to the conscious parts of our brain. Therefore, it is possible that there are parts of the body that are aware of the threat while the brain doesn’t have a clue.
Panic Attack Triggers
Potential triggers include:
Specific sensory stimuli that activate subconscious memories from our past (i.e. smelling cologne that smells like the same cologne worn by someone who has brought harm to us in the past, seeing the face of someone who looks similar to someone who has wronged us before, hearing a noise that reminds us of a similar noise that occurred at a previously stressful time).
Please note that these reminders are not always instances of past abuse; oftentimes, these reminders are representative of mild to moderate instances of embarrassment, shame, and/or guilt
Receiving news that the individual has been diagnosed with a serious medical condition – most of us are not aware of the timing of our own deaths. Learning the exact timeline of our anticipated expiration can feel unnatural. Thus, this creates an insurmountable amount of stress on a level that has never been experienced. It is easy to see how this can be overloading to system.
Certain body postures and movements can release pent up, stagnant energy. It is well known in the trauma community that experiences from our past not only get stuck in our brains but in our bodies as well. Thus, why only focusing on our minds is only addressing 50% of the problem while the body constitutes the other 50% of the equation.
Compare this to muscle memory – the muscle contains a copy of instructions pertaining to its expected functionality that originated from a past event, or time period, when it was used for a specific purpose. When that purpose is no longer being fulfilled, the muscle may become disengaged. However, when the body is called upon to perform similar duties once again, the muscle calls upon these instructions and is able to resume its structured performance after a little practice.
This also helps to explain why a sudden injury can cause deep states of depression and anxiety. Perhaps there was stored traumatic energy that was released when the body part experienced dislocation or trauma. Now all of that pent-up energy is free flowing throughout the body and it doesn’t know how to get rid of it. This type of overstimulation can lead to an overactive nervous system which can then lead to panic attacks.
How do you treat panic attacks?
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
CBT is a talk therapy technique that focuses on the relationship between our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. When we are able to dissect these items, it then becomes easier to understand where they came from and how they persist. From there, a skilled psychotherapist can help guide you to reframe negative thoughts and feelings into positive ones.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EDMR)
EMDR is an experiential (hands-on, interactive) technique that requires the reexperiencing of past events in order to make peace with them. While EMDR tends to be more emotionally taxing, it has an 85-90% success rate with results occurring much more quickly compared to talk therapy.
Somatic Experiencing (SE)
Somatic Experiencing this is also an experiential technique that requires various body positions and breathing techniques that are designed to release trapped energy that is keeping us stuck. Though considered unconventional, this technique has been shown to release immense amounts of toxic energy within one session leaving the client feeling substantially better in a shorter amount of time.
It must be noted that experiential techniques are highly emotionally challenging and are not for everybody. However, if you are in a state of readiness and high motivation to get the junk from your past out of your body, it is my opinion that talk therapy doesn’t even come close.
Counseling for Panic Attacks
If you are interested in any of these techniques, don’t hesitate to reach out and learn more. As a Charlotte anxiety therapist, I help people gain control over anxiety and panic attacks all the time. I’d love to help you eliminate panic attacks too. You can and deserve to begin experiencing relief today.
Counseling can be very effective treating panic attacks. If you have further questions about anxiety, panic attacks, and/or panic disorder, make an appointment by clicking the button below.