Panic attacks are fearsome experiences, filled with emotional, mental and physical terror that can suddenly stop life in its tracks. I vividly recall my first experience of this common disorder, witnessing and supporting a patient through an episode. She was unable to think clearly, her breathing was labored, she reported heart palpitations, and while her husband assured me it was a panic attack, we called the ambulance to be sure.
Who Does This Frightening Disorder Effect?
MentalHealth.org reports the one-year prevalence rate of panic disorder at 2-3% of the American population, with an increased incidence in women and the average onset between the ages of 20 – 24 years.
Medscape notes, to meet the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) diagnosis of pain attack, there must be a defined episode of fierce fear, which starts suddenly, reaches its height within minutes, continues for at least some minutes (although, reports state a single episode may last hours), and is accompanied by at least four other signs and symptoms; such as heart palpitations, sweating, shaking, difficulty breathing, nausea or dizziness. A complete list of possible symptoms can be read here.
For a diagnosis of panic disorder, an attack must be accompanied for more than one-month by subsequent and persistent concern regarding:
(1) experiencing a future attack, or
(2) significant, unhealthy behavioral changes related to the attack.
Other causes of these episodes must be excluded, for example, a medication or recreational drug reaction.
What Does Panic Attack Feel Like?
A panic attack is an abrupt emergence of overwhelming fear and anxiety. As with my patient, it can make the heart pound, harden breathing and some people, especially those experiencing their first episode, may feel like they are dying. It’s that scary!
Panic attack can be treated and I recommend you seek professional guidance promptly; the sooner you find help, the better.
What Causes Panic Attacks?
As with anxiety and depression, a rise in the sympathetic activity of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) prepares us for a fight or flight reaction. In the olden days of cavemen and women, this response could save lives, removing us quickly — where possible — from a life threatening situation. In modern day civilization, we infrequently come face-to-face with actual mortal danger, yet this system remains online and ready to act.
The hormonal changes that occur in fight or flight are much the same in panic attacks. Our article, Overcoming Generalized Anxiety Disorder: 12 Steps To Beat This Common Burden, explains more.
There also appears to be a hereditary link, panic attacks occur more commonly in certain medical conditions like cardiac arrhythmias, hyperthyroidism, asthma and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and following exceptionally stressful or chronic, unrelenting life experiences.
How to Stop a Panic Attack While It’s Happening
As a panic attack is a sudden, intense surge of fear, calming and reassuring behaviors and words may help. The aim is to enhance the parasympathetic, or relaxation, response. When you have a panic attack:
1. Recognize that you are experiencing a panic attack
2. Remove yourself to somewhere calm, with a support person if both available and helpful to you
3. Close your eyes
4. Take measured, deep and slowed breaths
5. Practice mindfulness
6. Find a focus object
7. Use muscle relaxation techniques
8. Repeat a mantra
9. Remind yourself… This will end soon
How to Stop Panic Attacks at Night
Most people who experience night time panic attacks are also day time sufferers. Other than the approaches listed above, reducing anxiety prior to bedtime may help. Switch off blue light screens for at least an hour before you intent to sleep; that’s the TV, your smart phone and your tablet. Give yourself time to unwind. Slow down and focus on steady, oxygen-giving breaths. Ensure those you share a home with understand this disorder and can support you, should you need it. Remember, this too will pass.
Panic Attack Treatment Without Medication
When it comes to panic attacks, there are natural options available. Let’s take a look:
1) Professional psychology therapy and treatments can make a profound difference. Research has shown Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to be helpful in panic disorder, with PsychCentral stating CBT’s “goal is to change patterns of thinking or behavior that are behind people’s difficulties, and so change the way they feel.” This appears to work.
2) Find out about panic disorder and anxiety. Understanding this condition will help you handle it when it arises. Greater understanding also reduces the fear, and this in itself may reduce the recurrence.
4) Learn controlled breathing and relaxation techniques, and practice these both regularly and while experiencing an attack. Activities such as meditation, Yoga, a daily exercise program and progressive muscle relaxation will also assist.
While panic attacks are fearsome experiences, the steps and strategies discussed through this article aim to lessen the frequency and distress during and after an episode. Seek professional help and prioritize your health. You can do this!