What is a Panic Attack?

A panic attack is an acute event in which a person feels an intense feeling of dread and an array of physical symptoms like sweating, high pulse, and trouble breathing. While panic attacks can be symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), they can also happen to people with no underlying anxiety disorder.

The Timing of Panic Attacks

A panic attack last about ten minutes for most people, not including the build-up or after effects. However, some people can have panic attacks that last for an hour or more. No matter the actual length, the person having a panic attack may feel like it has been much longer.

Afterward, a person can feel tired or groggy for a full day. Someone who has had a panic attack may feel anxious for several days after and worry about it happening again.

These events can be one-time problems for some patients. However, many people have recurrent panic attacks until they resolve the underlying issues. People with frequent panic attacks may have panic disorder.

A Physical Reaction to an Internal Stimuli

When people find themselves in real, physical danger, they may have several noticeable responses. For example, if a man finds himself face-to-face with an angry bear, his heart rate will rise, he may sweat, and he may feel extreme dread.

When people have panic attacks, they experience many of the same symptoms of facing off with a bear, but without obvious danger. This lack of logical stressors can make a person feel like they are “going crazy.” However, it’s important to remember that panic attacks are temporary and treatable.

Panic Attack vs. Typical Worries

When someone is in a stressful situation, it is perfectly healthy for that person to experience some negative emotions. Problems with a person’s relationships, health, finances, and work can all make someone feel worried. However, a panic attack is an outsized and unhealthy reaction to the same stimuli.

Instead of feeling worried or stressed, someone who is in the middle of a panic attack may feel as though their life is over. The physical response also differentiates these spells from healthy worrying.

Important Statistics

  • Each month, 1 million Americans have panic attacks.
  • 1 in 3 people with panic disorder also have agoraphobia.
  • 40 percent of people with panic disorder also have depression.
  • 1 in every 75 Americans will have panic disorder at some point in their lives.

Panic Attack Symptoms

Some people can easily confuse a heart attack with a panic attack. The symptoms of a panic attack include:

  • Racing heartbeat
  • Dizziness
  • Feeling weak
  • Sweating or chills
  • Trouble breathing
  • Feeling out of control
  • Chest pain
  • Sense of immediate danger or unavoidable doom
  • Tingling in the extremities

You will notice that many of the symptoms of panic attacks are very similar to heart attack symptoms. If you suspect that you are having a heart attack, please call 911 and tell them your symptoms.

How to Stop a Panic Attack

Someone who has frequent panic attacks should consult a mental health professional as soon as possible. However, the nature of these attacks means that some people need strategies to help until they can get an appointment. Although not all methods work for all people, some strategies to stop a panic attack include:

  • Focus on the breath
  • Call it by name
  • Try grounding
  • Methodically relax one body part at a time
  • Repeat a helpful mantra

Focus on the breath

Try to breathe deeply and think only of the air coming in and out of the body. Closing the eyes can help someone focus only on the breath.

Call it by name

Recognizing a panic attack for what it is can take some of its power away by recognizing the absence of danger.

Try grounding

Connecting oneself with surroundings can help slow the thoughts. Try identifying three distinct sounds, physical feelings, and smells.

Methodically relax one body part at a time

Starting with the feet, consciously unwind each muscle.

Repeat a helpful mantra

It can be a favorite quote or religious verse. Some options include, “This too shall pass,” and “I am safe.”

A therapist or psychiatrist can help patients develop techniques that are unique to their situations. If you believe that you may require therapy for panic attacks, find a therapist near you.

Panic Attack vs. Anxiety Attack

Although the names sound similar, panic and anxiety attacks are distinct events. Many of the symptoms remain the same. However, the main difference is that anxiety attacks have explicit stimuli that most people would react to.

For example, a woman walking home alone at night may have an anxiety attack if she hears footsteps behind her. She may feel the fast heart rate, difficulty breathing, and fear that someone having a panic attack may experience. However, as soon as the footsteps stop or she returns home safely, the symptoms disappear.

An anxiety attack is a reaction to an external stimulus. A panic attack is a reaction to internal triggers.

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