Panic attacks are very real, very awful, and emotionally debilitating. Many people who experience their first panic attack find themselves at hospital emergency rooms... or at doctors’ offices - prepared to hear the very worst news possible about their health.
When they don’t hear that they’ve had a life-threatening condition (such as a heart attack), this news may actually increase their anxiety and frustration: "... if I am physically OK, what happened to me? I experienced something so dreadful I can’t even explain it. So what’s happening to me?"
A panic attack is a horrible and terrifying experience, but it is not in any sense dangerous. Panic disorder is actually an entirely natural bodily reaction that is occurring OUT OF CONTEXT.
For example, when we feel our survival is somehow threatened, all mammals have an instinctual response to either fight or flee. This response produces a sudden surge of adrenaline, accompanied by strong feelings of anxiety and panic, and a very intense urge to flee or escape the situation or circumstance.
It is interesting that the intensity of the reaction and the strong urge to flee are things that would ensure your survival if you were truly in danger.....
The flow of adrenaline and the resulting extra blood flow increases your strength and awareness of the danger. This extra "awareness" of the perceived danger may cause all sorts of feelings, such as dizziness, nausea, hyperventilation, heart palpitations, confusion, lack of control, unreality, being dazed, shaking, trembling, and sweaty palms, among others.
During a panic attack, your body goes through the same physical processes as it would if you were in real danger. The DIFFERENCE, of course, is that although you feel you are in danger, you really ARE NOT. That you undergo panic attacks - without knowing why - only makes the situation much more frightening.
Because of these feelings of panic, it's very common to "invent" or attribute danger to the accompanying bodily symptoms. Remember, though, that NO ONE has ever had these things happen to them as a result of a panic attack:
"I'm going crazy": No one with panic attacks and anxiety has ever gone "crazy". In fact, because you realize that you have panic attacks, this is just another indication that you are not going crazy. People that "go crazy" lose contact with reality. Anxiety people are too much in contact with reality. Thus, people with panic and anxiety problems NEVER "go crazy". It simply cannot happen.
"I'm going to pass out": Temporary dizziness leads people with panic to feel that they may pass out. This is not possible because, during panic, your heart beats faster, and your blood pressure rises. As the blood pressure rises, it becomes impossible for you to "pass out". When people faint or "pass out", it's because of a sudden DROP or lowering in blood pressure.
"I', having a heart attack": when the heart begins to beat quickly and people experience "palpitations", they sometimes feel a heart attack is occurring. In the first place, the heart can beat quickly and continuously for a long period of time without causing any damage. Although heart palpitations seem to occur in the left side of the chest, there are many DIFFERENCES between panic attack and a real heart attack. During a real heart attack, the primary symptom is a crushing sensation inside the chest and a pain that is continuous. During a panic attack, the attention is focused on the quick and rapid beating of the heart itself. ("I can hear my heart beating even in my ears!") People having panic attacks are NOT experiencing heart problems. A real heart attacks produces crushing internal pain that doubles people up and drops them to the floor. They DO NOT hear their heart beating nor do they care. The intense, crushing pain is the only thing they can pay attention to.
"I will stop breathing and suffocate": Sometimes panic sufferers feel that because they can't catch their breath (and are hyperventilating), they will suffocate. This is impossible because you cannot pass out and suffocate. It feels like you can because the mixture of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your bloodstream is out of proportion. That is why people feel weak, dizzy, lightheaded, and faint. Suffocation is not a possibility during a panic attack. In a few moments, as the body gradually calms down, breathing returns to normal, and the other symptoms gradually go away.
"I'm losing control": Experiencing many anxiety symptoms all at once can cause a person to feel that they are "losing control" of themselves. Sometimes the fear is of acting nervous and foolish in public where others will be able to notice. Sometimes the fear is of being rushed to the hospital in an emergency vehicle. For other people, it is the fear that losing all control proves they are crazy and may have to be institutionalized. Actually, the fact that you think you could "lose control" guarantees that this is not really possible. The only people who really "lose control" are people who are not aware of this and are not ever concerned or bothered by "losing control".
Although the thoughts and feelings of anxiety and panic are all too real, the brain is being tricked into thinking that you are somehow in danger - when actually you are not. Part of effective therapy includes realizing this and slowly changing ingrained thought patterns. Another part of therapy is in actually tapping the emotional side itself - to quiet and relax the mind so that anxiety and panic will have no choice but to eventually disappear.
What Is A Panic Attack?
A panic attack can only be described as a comprehensive emotional nightmare. Some people with panic feel like they are in an escalating cycle of catastrophe and doom and that something bad is going to happen to them "right now this very moment."
Others feel as if they are having a heart attack as their heart races. The heart palpitations convince them that they are about to have an attack. Other people feel that they are going to "lose control" of themselves and will do something embarrassing in front of other people. Others breathe so quickly, gasping for air, that they hyperventilate and feel like they will suffocate from lack of oxygen.
Common symptoms of panic include:
a racing or pounding heartbeat
dizziness and lightheadedness
feeling that "I can’t catch my breath"
chest pains or a "heaviness" in the chest
flushes or chills
tingling in the hands, feet, legs, arms
jumpiness, trembling, twitching muscles
sweaty palms, flushed face
fear of losing control
fear of a stroke that will lead to disability
fear of dying
fear of going crazy
A panic attack typically lasts several long minutes and is one of the most distressing conditions a person can experience. In some cases, panic attacks have been known to last for longer periods of time or to recur very quickly over and over again.
The aftermath of a panic attack is very painful. Feelings of depression and helplessness are usually experienced. The greatest fear is that the panic attack will come back again and again, making life too miserable to bear.
Panic is not necessarily brought on by a recognizable circumstance, and it may remain a mystery to the person involved. These attacks come "out of the blue". At other times, excessive stress or other negative life conditions can trigger an attack.
Sadly, many people do not seek help for panic attacks, agoraphobia, and anxiety-related difficulties. This is especially tragic because panic and anxiety are treatable conditions that respond well to relatively short-term therapy. The National Institutes of Mental Health is currently conducting a nationwide campaign to educate the general public and health care practitioners that panic and the other anxiety disorders are some of the most successfully treated psychological problems. Clinical research provides us with a solid blueprint of methods that can help us overcome anxiety, panic, and agoraphobia.
Active, cognitive/behavioral therapy has been shown by research to be the most effective therapy in dealing with the anxiety problems. Usually, there is no reason to rehash the past and analyze it to death. In fact, the more you think and analyze your problems, the worse you can make your condition. (Analysis = paralysis). Instead, a focus on making the present better so that the future is (almost) anxiety-free is the best and most permanent course of action to take.
Today, panic is being successfully treated in the vast majority of cases. Active cognitive-behavioral therapy plus a strong motivation and persistence on the part of the client are the essential ingredients in overcoming this major anxiety disorder.
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