If you haven’t uttered these words yourself, chances are you’ve heard someone else say them:
“I think I’m having a panic attack.”
It’s a common phrase that gets tossed around, usually when describing stressful, high-anxiety situations. But in many cases, it’s not entirely accurate.
“Most of us know what anxiety feels like, but for some, anxiety can reach a heightened level known as a panic attack,” explains licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Jeff Nalin, Psy.D., founder of the Paradigm Malibu Treatment Center. “In periods of severe stress, our body’s defense mechanism kicks in by activating our natural fight-or-flight response, which triggers a host of emotional and physical reactions.”
Often defined as a sudden feeling of terror, panic attacks typically last anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes.
How Does a Panic Attack Differ from Anxiety?
The biggest difference between panic attacks and anxiety is that panic attacks are marked by a sudden feeling of terror, fear or apprehension, says Nalin. While many people are able to function with some degree of stress and anxiety, panic attacks often have more severe symptoms that can hinder daily routines and activities.
“Typical anxiety manifests itself over a period of time and is associated with a person’s heightened worry about something that may or may not happen, whereas panic attacks are defined by extreme physical and emotional symptoms that occur as a result of chronic stress, and are often unrelated to a specific event,” Nalin explains.
Common symptoms of a panic attack include:
- A sense of doom or catastrophe
- Racing heart or heart palpitations
- Dizziness or feelings of faintness
- Pressure and/or pain in the chest area
- Tingling in the extremities
- Difficulty breathing
- Shaking or trembling
- Feeling out of control
- Chills or hot flashes
- Feelings of impending death
One of the scariest things about panic attacks is that they can occur anywhere without warning—at home, at work, while driving or even while lying in bed. People who suffer from regular attacks may be diagnosed with panic disorder. “Their lives are completely disrupted by the fear that an attack may strike at any time, so they are always on guard, fearing the worst and experiencing chronic stress that can interfere with daily activities,” said Nalin.
While anxiety and panic attacks can run in families, Nalin points out that genetics aren’t the sole determining factor. Other potential triggers include trauma and abuse, loss or grief, reactions to medications (or withdrawals from those medications), learned behaviors, chronic stress and difficult life situations.
How to Handle a Panic Attack
Panic attacks can be frightening and overwhelming. By having the right toolset in place, you can teach yourself to regain control of your body and effectively handle future episodes.
One of the primary symptoms of a panic attack is the feeling that there isn’t enough air in the room, notes Nalin. Practicing deep breathing is a great way to help control your breathing and curb the attack. “By simply taking and holding a deep breath for a few seconds and then slowly releasing it, we infuse our bodies with the oxygen needed to prevent hyperventilation and refocus our minds,” he says.
Have a plan in place.
Stephanie Wijkstrom, M.S., L.P.C., N.C.C., founder of the Counseling and Wellness Center of Pittsburgh, says people with panic disorder should work with a mental health counselor to develop a plan for when a panic attack occurs.
“Some people write that plan down and carry it with them everywhere to remind themselves of how to work through their crisis management steps,” she says. “Some people do deep breathing, take a walk, use grounding techniques, trace the outline of the room with their eyes or stretch. A mental health counselor is the best person to come up with an individualized plan based on their strengths, needs and overall context.”
Ground yourself with sensory stimulation.
Lisa Bahar, a licensed professional clinical counselor, recommends having certain scents or aromas on hand that promote calmness. You might also try touching soft textures, combined with something hot or cold to drink.
Relax your body.
To regain composure during a panic attack, Nalin suggests relaxing the body by tensing the muscles and then releasing them completely. “When using this technique, it can help to start at the tips of your toes and progress to the top of your head,” he says. “Eventually, the tension will be reduced and you will feel better equipped to stop the attack.”
According to Nalin, distraction can serve as an effective means of banishing a panic attack. Try focusing on a chosen object, counting backward or repeating a positive phrase. You might also try reaching out to a friend or loved one, or cuddling with a pet. Bahar offers the example of counting a color that is in the room or in your immediate surroundings, such as red light, red car, red shirt.
Used alone or together, all of these practices can be helpful in defusing a panic attack, but to prevent them from occurring in the first place, Nalin stresses the importance of finding long-term tools and techniques. “Eating healthy foods, implementing regular workouts, practicing mindful techniques such as yoga and meditation, and taking the time for self-care activities are all important actions that can help you feel better in the long run,” he explains.
If you continue to suffer from frequent, severe attacks that impair your daily activities, it’s important to see a therapist who specializes in panic disorders and can recommend the appropriate treatment.