While panic and anxiety are a natural response to stress, pervasive and ongoing feelings of panic could be a sign of panic disorder. These feelings of panic and anxiety often manifest as panic attacks, interrupting everyday life and making it difficult to move away from worrisome or negative thoughts.
What Is a Panic Attack?
A panic attack is an intense – but often fleeting – episode of anxiety and panic which produces physical symptoms of fear and usually develops in early adulthood. Most panic attacks last anywhere between a couple of minutes to an hour but can come on unexpectedly and without warning. When a panic attack occurs for the first time, many people mistake it for a heart attack. This is because both produce similar physical symptoms such as a racing heartbeat and shortness of breath.
It is important to remember that panic attacks don’t actually pose any threat and cannot bring you any physical harm. These feelings may be uncomfortable and frightening but treatment and support are available. You may feel embarrassed about your situation, but keep in mind that you are not alone. Panic attacks are extremely common – up to 35% of the population will experience one at some point in their lives.
What Causes Panic Attacks?
One of the overarching causes of panic attacks is the ‘flight or fight response.’ Whenever the body believes it is being put under extreme stress or in danger, this response is triggered and can often cause panic attacks to develop. However, not all situations actually have to be dangerous to trigger a panic attack. You could even experience one while sleeping or reading a book.
In these situations, the flight or fight response can be activated by other possible causes, including:
- Ongoing stress
- Traumatic events
- Underlying anxiety disorders (panic disorder, anxiety, or depression)
- Excessive physical exercise or exertion
- Drugs or medication
Research suggests that things as small as shyness or new experiences and environments can all trigger a panic attack.
What Is a Panic Disorder?
If you have consistent and regular panic attacks, you may suffer from panic disorder. A type of anxiety disorder, panic disorder is characterized by an overwhelming fear of panic attacks – even before they’ve taken place. People with panic disorder can feel so overwhelmed and frightened that they may even avoid certain situations or places entirely for fear that they might trigger a panic attack.
Panic disorder can have a significant impact on your mental health, making it difficult to integrate and sometimes even forcing people into isolation. However, with proper treatment and management, you can go on to live a fulfilled life and have a much better handle on your disorder.
Symptoms of a Panic Attack
When panic attacks come on, they are often intense and frightening. Once you’re aware of the symptoms – and that you’re not in actual danger – it can be easy to deal with your feelings and better manage your response.
Some of the most common panic attack symptoms include:
- Chest pain
- A sense of impending doom
- Racing heartbeat
- Feelings of losing control
- General anxiety symptoms (worrisome and irrational thoughts)
- Hot flushes
- Dry mouth
- Chills, tremors, and tingling
- Breathing difficulties
Panic attacks may seem frightening, but they are often simply the result of undiagnosed panic disorder.
Symptoms of Panic Disorder
The symptoms of panic disorder do not differ hugely from panic attacks but are nevertheless distinct.
Some of the most common include:
- Continuous worry and fear about when the next panic attack will happen
- Avoiding situations or places that are stressful or known to trigger a panic attack
- Ongoing and repeated panic attacks
- Physical symptoms associated with a panic attack (rapid heart rate, nausea, difficulty breathing, and chills).
When panic attacks are pervasive, day-to-day life can become particularly challenging. Luckily, treating panic disorder is fairly simple and uncomplicated. The first step is obtaining a diagnosis.
While panic attacks are not generally something to be worried about, if you’re experiencing them on a regular and consistent basis you may have panic disorder. Getting this checked out as soon as possible will enable you to move forward with treatment and get you the help and support you need to better manage your mental health.
If you do believe you’re suffering from panic disorder, it is always best to seek medical advice and receive a proper diagnosis from a mental health professional. They’ll carry out a medical screening and mental health check to see if you are suffering from any other anxiety disorders – this will help determine the best course of treatment for you.
Treatment for Panic Disorder and Panic Attacks
There is a wide range of treatment options available to those suffering from regular panic attacks and/or panic disorder.
Also known as talk therapy, psychotherapy works to change the way you feel and respond to panic attacks or any emotions that are brought up as a result of panic disorder. A popular type of psychotherapy in panic disorder treatment is cognitive-behavioral therapy. During these sessions, a therapist will help you better understand a panic attack, your individual triggers, and what you can do to cope with them.
As part of therapy, you may work one-on-one with your therapist or be introduced to a support group. Though daunting at first, support groups are a great way of hearing from other people who are in a situation similar to your own. Another therapy used to help treat panic disorder is called exposure therapy and is often used in conjunction with cognitive-behavioral therapy. During exposure therapy, you’ll be taken through the symptoms of a panic attack in real-time in a safe environment – this is done in the effort to normalize the feelings of fear and panic and help you understand that you’re not in any actual danger.
In some cases, particularly with severe panic disorder, a mental health specialist may prescribe medication to help you better cope with panic attacks and ease physical symptoms.
Commonly prescribed medications for panic disorder include:
- Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors
- Norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors
- Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors
Herbal medicines may also be used to help patients cope with panic attacks and panic disorder, though research on their effectiveness is limited. The fact that herbal medicine produces few or no side effects makes it a popular alternative to pharmaceutical medication, but it is always best to get the advice of your doctor.
Lifestyle Changes and Adjustments
While professional medical and psychological treatment is often needed, minor lifestyle changes and healthy habits can help ease symptoms and make living with panic disorders and regular panic attacks more manageable.
Prepare for a panic attack
Make sure you have a method in place to deal with panic attacks when you feel them coming on. This could be anything from breathing slowly and deeply to calling up a friend to reassure you, or taking a walk outside.
Steer clear of caffeine, smoking, and drugs
In some cases, caffeine can trigger the flight or fight response which is, in part, responsible for triggering a panic attack. If caffeine, smoking, or drugs tends to cause panic attacks to develop, stay away from these substances.
Practice mindfulness and meditation
Both mindfulness and meditation are all about focusing on the present, which can be of great relief in times of intense anxiety or stress. Those with panic disorder often tend to think about when the next panic attack will happen, but this is seldom helpful. Concentrating on the here and now can help you stay grounded or move your mind away from negative thoughts.
Maintain a healthy lifestyle
Though there is no set treatment that can prevent panic attacks or stop them in their tracks, maintaining an overall healthy lifestyle will keep you level-headed, grounded, and in the now. Always aim for a sufficient night’s sleep (eight hours is the recommended minimum) and try to eat a healthy, balanced diet.
Regular exercise is a great stress reliever and can raise your level of endorphins, making it easier to cope with panic disorder. Aim for at least 30-60 minutes of exercise a day – this doesn’t have to be high-intensity or strenuous, it can be something as simple as a walk or light jog.
Panic Disorder Treatment at The Revoke Programme
Here at The Revoke Programme, we know just how difficult it can be to live with panic disorder, and we’re here to help you develop the tools and resources needed to overcome your anxiety and better manage your symptoms.
Once you enter our clinic, our mental health team will assess your medical history and draw up a personalised treatment plan that suits your unique needs. We offer a wide range of treatment options from group therapy, peer support, and psychotherapy and will always seek to provide you with the best level of care and comfort you need,