The Truth About Panic Attacks
By Dr. Jillian Satin, Registered Clinical and Health Psychologist
If you have ever had a panic attack, you know that they are terrifying.
You may still be wondering what happened and you may live in fear that it will happen again.
This post is for the 1 in 5 people who will experience a panic attack in their lifetime.
Before you read on, please know that panic attacks are treatable. Overcoming panic attacks starts with education, so let’s get started.
What is a panic attack?
A panic attack is defined as an abrupt surge of intense fear or intense discomfort that reaches a peak within minutes. During this time, four or more of the following symptoms occur:
- Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
- Trembling, or shaking
- Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
- Feelings of choking
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Nausea or abdominal distress
- Feeling dizzy, unsteady, light-headed, or faint
- Chills or heat sensations
- Numbness or tingling sensations
- Feelings of unreality or feeling detached from oneself
- Fear of losing control or “going crazy”
- Fear of dying
What is panic disorder?
For an estimated 5% of the population, panic attacks lead to panic disorder.
Panic disorder occurs when an individual experiences:
- Multiple unexpected panic attacks.
- Persistent concern with having additional panic attacks and/or significant changes in behaviour out of fear of having another panic attack for one month or longer after a panic attack. When this happens, some people may respond by staying in their homes.
A panic attack is not always an indication of panic disorder. It can be an isolated incident without much consequence or it could be part of another anxiety problem such as fear of heights.
Panic attacks simplified
There are some common elements of panic attacks. Here’s what you should know:
- Panic attacks begin when you notice a physical sensation or change (such as rapid heart rate). To the sufferer’s surprise, this can happen out of the blue. People tend to think that panic attacks only happen in high stress situations, but this is not always the case.
- It is natural to search for a medical explanation for this unexpected sensation. You may ask yourself questions about why this is happening and you may draw some frightening conclusions (for example, “I’m having a heart attack”).
- Worry can lead to more anxiety symptoms. What began as the sensation of a rapid heartbeat is then accompanied by more physical symptoms such as sweating, nausea, and shortness of breath.
- New sensations only worsen the worry thoughts, which again worsen the sensations, in a cycle.
What can I do about my panic?
If you think you experience panic attacks, the first step is to rule out medical causes for your symptoms. By doing so, you will be able to approach panic attacks with the confidence that you are safe. Talk to your family doctor, who may recommend medical tests.
It is vital that you understand and remind yourself that panic attacks are not dangerous, even though they are unpleasant (to say the least). They come to a peak and then they pass. Though it may feel like it will never end, you can be sure that it will.
Please keep in mind that ruling out medical causes does not mean that panic attacks are “all in your head”. It is a very real problem with very real solutions. There is good evidence that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for panic disorder can reduce the frequency and severity of panic attacks, as well as the impact that panic has on people’s lives. Treatment may include education about panic, changing the way you react to panic attacks in the moment, gently exposing yourself to situations or experiences you have been avoiding, and decreasing your general level of anxiety.
Panic disorder is treatable. If you think you experience panic attacks, it is a good idea to talk to a healthcare practitioner. Make an appointment with Dr. Jillian Satin to learn more and explore tailored treatment options.
1) Kessler RC, Chiu W, Jin R, Ruscio A, Shear K, Walters EE. The Epidemiology of Panic Attacks, Panic Disorder, and Agoraphobia in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2006;63(4):415-424.
2) American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.
3) Roy-Byrne, P. P., Craske, M. G., Stein, M. B., Sullivan, G., Bystritsky, A., Katon, W., … & Sherbourne, C. D. (2005). A randomized effectiveness trial of cognitive-behavioral therapy and medication for primary care panic disorder. Archives of General Psychiatry, 62(3), 290-298.