“One day, without any warning or reason, a feeling of terrible anxiety came crashing down on me. I felt like I couldn’t get enough air, no matter how hard I breathed. My heart was pounding out of my chest, and I thought I might die. I was sweating and felt dizzy. I felt like I had no control over these feelings and like I was drowning and couldn’t think straight.
Shortness of breath and chest pain are the predominant symptoms. People experiencing a panic attack may incorrectly attribute them to a heart attack and thus seek treatment in an emergency room. Because chest pain and shortness of breath are hallmark symptoms of cardiovascular illnesses, including unstable angina and myocardial infarction (heart attack), a diagnosis of exclusion (ruling out other conditions) must be performed before diagnosing a panic attack. It is especially important to do this for people whose mental health and heart health statuses are unknown. This can be done using an electrocardiogram and mental health assessments.
Although anxiety is often accompanied by physical symptoms, such as a racing heart or knots in your stomach, what differentiates a panic attack from other anxiety symptoms is the intensity and duration of the symptoms. Panic attacks typically reach their peak level of intensity in 10 minutes or less and then begin to subside. Due to the intensity of the symptoms and their tendency to mimic those of heart disease, thyroid problems, breathing disorders, and other illnesses, people with panic disorder often make many visits to emergency rooms or doctors' offices, convinced they have a life-threatening issue.
I think I had an anxiety attack the other day, but I’m not sure. I was at the movies and felt scared, like something or someone was going to attack me. I drove home and felt like I was scared of the dark and was having trouble breathing and focusing on driving. After dropping off my bf and driving home, I started crying and hyperventilating, and felt detached from the world, like nothing mattered, and felt like I was going to die. It took me two hours to fall asleep and I had nightmares. The episode was over by morning, but I’m concerned that it will happen again.
For me it stems from witnessing my mother unconscious after her successful suicide. I was 10 years old. Just about to turn 11. I went from a lively fearless child to an overcautious adult. Now well educated and on permanent disability. Anxiety over the recent elections had me frozen for a day. Then I burst into tears the next. These attacks are linked to the day she died. I have an excellent psychiatrist. Had a breakdown in 1996. I have improved since then. But these moments come up. I want to be normal. I have PTSD and bipolar disorder.
More medications are available than ever before to effectively treat anxiety disorders. These include antidepressants (SSRIs, SNRIs, Tricyclic Antidepressants, MAOIs), tranquilizers (benzodiazepines, etc.) and in some cases, anticonvulsants. A person may have to try more than one medication before finding a drug or combination of drugs that works for them. Learn more about medications.
The person being treated will be closely monitored for the possibility of side effects that can range from minor to severe and can sometimes even be life-threatening. Because of the possible risks to the fetus of a mother being treated with medications for panic attacks, psychotherapy continues to be the treatment of first choice when treatment of this symptom is given during pregnancy.
Once you are under enough stress, almost anything can set off a panic attack. Suppose you are under a lot of stress, but still managing. If you add even more stress, your brain will begin to feel under siege. Your body will respond by releasing adrenaline as part of the fight or flight response. That will cause more anxiety, which will create a vicious feedback that will turn into a panic disorder.
Anxiety attacks that occur while sleeping, also called nocturnal panic attacks, occur less often than panic attacks during the daytime but affect about 40%-70% of those who suffer from daytime panic attacks. This symptom is also important because people who suffer from panic symptoms during sleep tend to have more respiratory distress associated with their panic. They also tend to experience more symptoms of depression and other psychiatric disorders compared to people who do not have panic attacks at night. Nocturnal panic attacks tend to cause sufferers to wake suddenly from sleep in a state of sudden fear or dread for no apparent reason. In contrast to people with sleep apnea and other sleep disorders, sufferers of nocturnal panic can have all the other symptoms of a panic attack. The duration of nocturnal panic attacks tends to be less than 10 minutes, but it can take much longer to fully calm down for those who experience them.
Although the exact causes of panic attacks and panic disorder are unclear, the tendency to have panic attacks runs in families. There also appears to be a connection with major life transitions such as graduating from college and entering the workplace, getting married, or having a baby. Severe stress, such as the death of a loved one, divorce, or job loss can also trigger panic attacks.
Cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on the thinking patterns and behaviors that are sustaining or triggering your panic attacks and helps you look at your fears in a more realistic light. For example, if you had a panic attack while driving, what is the worst thing that would really happen? While you might have to pull over to the side of the road, you are not likely to crash your car or have a heart attack. Once you learn that nothing truly disastrous is going to happen, the experience of panic becomes less terrifying.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), is based on the idea that our thoughts cause our feelings and behaviors, not external things, like people, situations, and events. According to the National Association of Cognitive Behavioral Therapists the benefit of this therapy is that we can change the way we think to feel and act better even if the situation does not change. CBT focuses on determining the thought and behavior patterns responsible for sustaining or causing the panic attacks. CBT is a time-limited process (treatment goals—and the number of sessions expected to achieve them—are established at the start) that employs a variety of cognitive and behavioral techniques to affect change.
The cause of anxiety disorders is a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Anxiety can stem itself from certain factors: genetics, medicinal side-effects, shortness of oxygen. Risk factors include a history of child abuse, family history of mental disorders, and poverty. Anxiety disorders often occur with other mental disorders, particularly major depressive disorder, personality disorder, and substance use disorder. To be diagnosed symptoms typically need to be present at least six months, be more than would be expected for the situation, and decrease functioning. Other problems that may result in similar symptoms including hyperthyroidism, heart disease, caffeine, alcohol, or cannabis use, and withdrawal from certain drugs, among others.
Please Note: In some cases, children, teenagers, and young adults under 25 may experience an increase in suicidal thoughts or behavior when taking antidepressant medications, especially in the first few weeks after starting or when the dose is changed. Because of this, patients of all ages taking antidepressants should be watched closely, especially during the first few weeks of treatment.