Imagine feeling a sudden jolt of terror, panic or fear. Your heart starts racing. It feels like you can’t breathe. Your body starts shaking. But after a little while, everything returns to normal. You suddenly can catch your breath, your limbs stop shaking and all of the thoughts racing around in your mind go away. You eventually recover enough to feel normal, but you’re probably wondering what you just experienced.
The answer? A panic attack.
Panic attacks can be a scary thing to go through, especially if it’s something you haven’t experienced before. Panic attacks are not exactly common — every year, about 11 percent of Americans experience a panic attack, according to the Cleveland Clinic. However, they are a primary complaint of people with anxiety, and college students are one of the largest groups to experience mental health problems such as anxiety or depression. According to the Mayo Clinic, 44 percent of college students report having symptoms of anxiety or depression. So, panic attacks may be more common than we think. Understanding what they are and how to get through them can be helpful if you ever experience one or if you need to help a friend who does.
What is a panic attack?
A panic attack can be defined as a “sudden onset of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause,” according to the Mayo Clinic. This is different from general anxiety, which usually manifests as an almost constant feeling of worry. Panic attacks can begin suddenly, without a sign or warning; they can also appear at any time — when sitting in class, driving a car or even sound asleep. People who experience a panic attack are bombarded by a variety of physical and mental symptoms, which vary from person to person. These symptoms don’t normally last long, as symptoms usually peak within a few minutes, and then your body begins to calm down.
Some common symptoms of a panic attack include:
- A feeling of impending danger
- Rapid, pounding heart rate
- Shortness or loss of breath
- Trembling or shaking of limbs
- Nausea, headache or dizziness
- Hot flashes
- Chest pain
Many people who experience a panic attack usually experience one or more of these symptoms, but they don’t have to. Attacks vary for everyone, so the symptoms you experience might be different from a friend or relative who has had a panic attack.
While the symptoms of a panic attack are not dangerous, they can be scary for anyone who experiences it. People may think they’re having a heart attack, going insane or, in severe cases, dying. The experience can be traumatic. Some people even report that it is so triggering that they avoid doing things that remind them of when they had their episode — such as going to the grocery store or eating food they had before the attack occurred.
What causes a panic attack?
There is no single stressor that causes panic attacks. Factors such as genetics, major stresses in life, a temperament more prone to negative emotions or stress and certain changes in the way your brain functions may play a role. While these stressors can cause panic attacks, these attacks can also occur unexpectedly, seemingly with no discernible trigger.
Some research suggests that panic attacks result from our body’s natural fight-or-flight response to danger. According to an article from The New York Times, when people are experiencing intense stress, their bodies respond by activating the sympathetic nervous system — which triggers that fight-or-flight response. The body then releases certain chemicals, such as epinephrine, also known as adrenaline, which can cause some of the symptoms experienced during a panic attack (heart racing, sweating, and pupil swelling). Another set of nerves, called the parasympathetic nervous system, calms us down and returns our body to its natural state.
How do you soothe a panic attack?
In the moment, it may feel like there’s nothing you can do to help soothe your mind and body, but there are a few helpful tips that doctors and therapists recommend to help anchor yourself and calm down if you’re experiencing a panic attack.
First, talk yourself through it. Tell yourself that the symptoms are just a result of anxiety. Remind yourself that you’ll get through it. While it’s scary, the panic itself is not dangerous. Talking through it can remind you to live in the moment and ground you in reality.
Breathing is also an important skill to understand while experiencing a panic attack. If you’re hyperventilating, a common symptom, try breathing slowly, gently and deeply in through your nose and out through your mouth. Close your eyes and focus on your breathing and you should start feeling better within minutes.
Another tactic that therapists recommend is to count colors. This grounding technique requires you to count and name the colors around you. You can say them out loud or just note them in your mind. Doing this can help distract you from the anxiety mounting in your mind and bring you back to earth.
If you want a somewhat quick reliever, grab something cold. Therapists say that the shock of an ice cube or a damp, cool washcloth on the skin can help center you. It can also help alleviate other symptoms, such as hot flashes and sweating.
Finally, always have someone to call. Make sure you have a trusted friend or family member you can turn to when you’re experiencing these intense emotions. Giving them a call when you start to feel these symptoms can be incredibly helpful; just talking to someone about what you’re feeling can help stabilize you in a moment of fear.
How do you prevent a panic attack?
There is no sure way to prevent panic attacks. They sometimes come from a certain trigger, but they can also seemingly appear out of nowhere with no discernible trigger or stressor. However, there are several recommendations that therapists and doctors make for those experiencing multiple panic attacks or those who are fearful of another one occurring.
If you have recurring panic attacks, seek out help. Whether it be through a doctor or a therapist, get treatment before your attacks start getting worse. The therapist route can be helpful as forms of cognitive behavioral therapy seem to be the most effective treatment. Talking through your emotions and experiences with someone else can help change your thought patterns and desensitize you to the underlying stress that may be triggering attacks. You can also talk to a doctor about medications, including antidepressants or serotonin reuptake inhibitors (S.S.R.I), which can help manage anxiety and prevent panic attacks in the future.
Many people may only experience one or two panic attacks throughout their entire lifetime. However, if you’re someone who has experienced recurrent, unexpected panic attacks or have spent periods worrying about when you might experience your next attack you might have a condition called panic disorder. If that’s the case, we recommend talking to your doctor to find out what treatments are available or visiting a therapist to figure out what could be the common cause.
Have you had a panic attack? Share your experience with us @VALLEYMag on Twitter and Instagram.