What is a panic attack?

A panic attack can be described as a sudden episode of inexplainable intense fear. Such attacks can trigger severe physical reactions, even though there is no real danger at hand.

A person who suffers from panic attacks may think that he is losing control and is dying. It is a very stressful and frightening time for the person and those close to him when a panic attack does occur.

We all have panic attacks now and then, but such events do not take control of our lives and go away when the stressful situation is successfully addressed, e.g., an important examination, a job interview, a sudden death, or even fear of crossing the road.

However, if the panic attacks keep recurring, and a person spends a lot of time in constant fear of another attack, or the person injures himself or herself during an attack, the person may have a condition called panic disorder.

When does a panic attack happen?

Panic attacks begin suddenly with warning, i.e., they can happen when you are at a mall, having a nap, driving a car or in a queue at the bank. The situations vary but symptoms peak within minutes and leave a person drained when the attack subsides.

Typical panic attacks may include one or a combination of these symptoms:

  • increased heart rate
  • sweating or chills
  • trembling
  • nausea
  • dizziness
  • a sense that disaster is going to strike
  • fear of losing it all
  • severe headache
  • inability to breath properly / gasping

Causes of panic attacks

What actually causes a panic attack is still unknown; however, certain factors may bring on such attacks:

  • genetics – family history of panic attacks
  • major stress – death or illness of a close one
  • a traumatic event – serious car accident, childhood physical abuse
  • major life changes – divorce, separation or addition of a baby
  • smoking

Historical data show panic disorder tends to affect more women than men.

Initial panic attacks start off without warning, but over time certain situations can trigger them. Medical research suggests that panic attacks are related to your body’s fight-or-flight reaction to a danger.

For example, imagine a situation when a wild animal chases after you. Your body automatically reacts with increasing your heart rate and breathing while your brain assesses whether to stay still or run for your life.

In the case of panic attacks, researchers are still trying to find out why they occur even when there is no obvious danger present.

Complications caused by panic attacks:

If left untreated, panic attacks will affect many areas of everyday life. A constant fear of having a panic attack anywhere at any time may ruin your quality of life.

People who suffer severe panic attacks may develop phobias such as:

  • fear of being alone
  • fear of driving or leaving home
  • being socially withdrawn from friends and work
  • depression and other psychiatric disorders
  • suicidal thoughts
  • substance abuse – alcohol, drugs

Diagnosis:

It is important not to feel ashamed to consult your family doctor if you suffer from panic attacks. Your doctor will carry out some preliminary tests to rule out other possible causes with similar symptoms. If test results are conclusive, your doctor will refer you to a psychiatrist or psychologist.

Treatment options:

Psychotherapy – cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), is normally used as initial treatment of panic disorder, where CBT basically tries to re-wire your brain, i.e., it teaches you alternative ways of reacting to the feelings associated with a panic attack.

The severity of the attacks may begin to recede once you learn to react differently to the physical and psychological sensations that occur during panic attacks.

Medication – your psychiatrist may prescribe medication to treat panic disorders. Do consult your doctor about any concerns you may have about taking medication, as there may be side effects.

Service dogs – specially trained canines that can anticipate the onset of a panic attack, provide a sense of calm to the owner or even raise the alarm for emergency assistance.

Prevention of panic attacks:

There is no guaranteed way to prevent panic attacks, but they can be controlled with the treatment options mentioned above.

If you do suffer from panic attacks, try to incorporate the following options to minimize them:

Stick to your treatment plan – be it medication, psychiatric appointments, therapy

Join a local support group – your doctor or psychiatrist may be able to make recommendations here

Go out and get some daily exercise – if possible, join a neighbourhood group

Take up relaxation techniques – like yoga, meditation or deep breathing to lower your stress level

By Aaron
23rd July 20:00 2020 

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