Panic attacks... what are they?

Panic attacks can be terrifying. It is estimated that anywhere up to 6 million people in the United States alone experience panic attacks on a regular basis. Most people, however, have just a few panic attacks over their lifetime and the attacks then stop permanently. This is probably because the stressful situation has ended and they have returned to a calm and balanced place in their minds. The people who continue to have attacks are usually those personalities who continue to obsessively brood and ruminate about a past experience, thus keeping themselves in a state of anxiety.   

Sufferers of panic attacks can experience

  •        chest pain
  •        a feeling of not being able to catch their breath
  •        trembling and shaking
  •        sweating
  •        heart palpitations to the point of feeling as though they’re having a heart attack
  •        nausea
  •        dizziness
  •        total brain freeze
  •        jumbling of words or stuttering
  •        vision issues
  •        cramps in the stomach
  •        feelings of detachment or unreality

… and so it goes on. There is often a very real sense that they are going mad.

It’s common to find these people presenting in Accident and Emergency as they really believe they are having a heart attack and are going to die.

The effects of these panic attacks can last from a few minutes (typically around 20 minutes) right through to hours, which is no fun at all. This is especially true for people in a work environment who are trying to maintain a façade of being in control. Not easy if they having trouble stringing a sentence together!

Anna Lente writes in the Mighty about what a panic attack feels like for her:

At first, little things trigger my anxiety more and more. My senses heighten. My mind and body go on full alert. I feel chilled, though my face is flushed. I feel like a deer caught in headlights, overwhelmed by the blinding lights of a situation I’m trapped in.

My body is frozen in place, but ready to flee. My thoughts curdle and scatter in a million directions. I hear an alert sounding in my head. Danger, danger! Escape, escape!

I become hypersensitive to sounds, movements, voices, darkness and light. Everything feels too close and too loud. Words people say jump out at me. Small movements people make feel like assaults against me. When people come close to me I jump back, startled.

Everything begins to fade to black. I am overwhelmed by everything around me, but I feel very alone, lost inside my body.

My chest constricts. I feel a weight pressing against my chest, preventing me from breathing correctly. My heart pounds wildly. My breathing is sharp and shallow. I gasp for air, as if I were drowning.

I feel light-headed and dizzy. Everything around me starts to spin. I feel disconnected from my body for a moment. The world feels painfully loud, bright and dissonant. I feel trapped and overwhelmed by the world, yet separate from it since I feel so different. I see so many colours at once, so many people talking at the same time. My rapid heartbeats and shallow breaths sound very loud to me, as if they echo throughout the room. I am aware of too much at once, and then suddenly only aware of my own head, my own body, my own attempts to survive this crisis.

The world stops behaving normally. It seems to freeze for a moment, and then start again at different speeds, at different volumes. People’s faces seem distorted, movements exaggerated and strange. For a moment, my heart beating seems louder than anything else in the room, and I feel like everyone is looking at me. But then, the world seems extremely loud, and me silent and ignored.

I realize I need to leave in order to survive this attack. I instinctively cover my face and head and go. I leave quickly, trying not to catch anyone’s eye. Outside, I take large, shuddering gasps of air. My body relaxes and I start to feel safe again. I sit somewhere, overwhelmed, as the blood rushes back into my head and the weight lifts off of my chest. I gasp for air again and again. Air never tasted so sweet as in that moment.

Then I find a place I can relax for a while and be alone. It takes time to heal from a panic attack. It usually takes me a few hours. I rest. I practice my breathing exercises and muscle relaxation exercises. Eventually I recover, and am ready to come back to the world again.

Panic attacks are caused by the release of neurotransmitters (can also be called chemical messengers) to the amygdala. The amygdala takes care of emotions such as fear. Once this happens the fight or flight response kicks in and this starts the cascade of symptoms that we recognise as a panic attack.

Attacks can even happen during sleep and this can lead people to believe that the attack has come from out of nowhere. This is actually not true.

It may feel as though the panic is being caused by something external but this is not the case at all. Panic attacks often occur if the body is sensing any danger or the sufferer is being triggered by past memories or experiences to a place or situation. The recall of this past experience (this can even be on an unconscious level) causes the body to release cortisol and adrenaline (the stress hormone) and the body then goes into full panic mode.

Sufferers can be very socially anxious and, if the attacks are not treated, they will go on to avoid many situations as they try and manage their attacks. Life becomes smaller and narrower. Even just the fear of having an attack can be enough to create one, leaving the sufferer feeling very powerless and helpless.

If you would like to address your panic attacks and regain control of your life, call for a free initial consultation. I am available to work on Skype if getting in to my clinic is not an option.