What are common assumptions people have about panic attacks?
People feel like they are causing this and they can "will" themselves out of it too. They often think that they are being weak and they should be able to "get over it". This type of self-talk actually perpetuates the panic and anxiety and does not help the individual who is suffering. You are not to blame for having panic attacks and you deserve help!
What does a panic attack feel like?
Have you ever been stuck in an elevator and felt suddenly the world was closing in on you and you couldn't breathe? That might have been a panic attack. They are often sudden and unexpected - that means you could be doing fine in your day and out of nowhere you have overwhelming physical sensations of being out of control. Your heart is pumping fast, you can't breathe, your head might feel full, you might feel dizzy or like you are going to pass out. That's panic. It is a truly helpless and painful state for people to experience. Once they've had it happen, they fear it happening again which can create a vicious cycle leading to avoidance of things they think will bring on the panic.
What causes a person to have a panic attack? Is it something that can be controlled with practice? Why or why not?
There's no known scientific reason why. What I have seen in my practice is often people who are prone to panic attacks are those people that are actually very strong. They are independent, they take care of all their responsibilities and they value being driven. They often do not share their feelings a lot, which lets them build up in the system. I see a panic attack almost as an explosion of the built up feelings over time. They often happen in down time of being in the car or getting ready to rest for the evening.
At what point should someone seek medical attention for a panic attack?
Something becomes a problem when it is impacting the quality of your life in some way -- either taking away from your social life, work-life, etc. If you have had more than one attack and you see them increasing in intensity and frequency then being seen is a good idea. First, panic is very treatable, and second it responds best to immediate treatment. The longer we let it go, the more the mind wraps up other conclusions that make the anxiety worse (e.g., I am weak, what's wrong with me, I'm defective, etc). It is a good idea to see a panic therapist specialist and a psychiatrist/primary care so that medications and therapy can be used as needed. There is help out there and you don't have to live like this!
How can you tell if something is a panic attack or something physically more dangerous?
Sometimes you cannot and if you are not sure, don't chance it! If it is your first panic attack and you cannot breathe, or you become weak and are sweating profusely, you should go to the doctor to ensure everything is okay. People who have had panic attacks before get to know them better and do not need to seek medical help in the midst of the attack when they learn to manage it themselves. Sometimes panic disorder occurs alongside of a medical disorder, so any strong therapist is going to want you to have a medical work up to rule out anything that could be impacting or underlying your panic.
What practices do you personally recommend when someone experiences a panic attack?
Grounding and deep breathing are key! This gets us in the present and out of the future/past of the panic (I should be able to or I wish I did something....etc). In 5-4-3-2-1 we list five things we see, four things we hear, three things we can touch, two things we can smell and one thing we can taste. This quick trick paired with square breathing can help us cool down our nervous system a bit. Your physician may also prescribe a medication(s) for short-term and long-term control of you panic. And, of course therapy like EMDR and CBT can help you get ot the underlying root and reframe your thinking. I have personally used these techniques, as I am a psychologist who has had panic attacks most of my life and I use these daily practices to keep my nervous system in check! :)
What should you NOT do when having a panic attack?
Do not use escape behaviors like avoiding or leaving somewhere as that reinforces the anxiety. Do not surround yourself with high stimulation - remove stimulation when in panic because your system is already overwhelmed. Stay away from energy drinks and other stimulants that can increase your anxiety.
How long do panic attacks typically last?
Usually about 20-30 minutes. They can last longer (usually the mind will create more thoughts in response to the body reaction and this will speed up the reaction!) and less if the person knows how to manage them.
How can people prevent panic attacks in the future?
Get help! Learn about your anxiety and becomes friends with your anxiety. That goes a long way. Be compassionate and kind to yourself - you didn't ask for hits but you do have to manage it. Treatment is available - KML has expertise in anxiety and panic so don't hesitate to reach out!!!
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