Imagine that out of the blue, whether by day or at night, in a situation not particularly traumatic or dramatic or even remarkable … you are suddenly gripped by chest pains or you feel definite breathing difficulty. Perhaps your neck and shoulder muscles are in a knot, your heart beats too fast, you sweat profusely … or have the chills, you have abdominal pains, your hands are clammy, you feel tingly or numb, and dizzy … as if you are about to die.
It’s sudden and intense. An overwhelming sense of terror. You fear losing control. You can’t believe this is happening. (Is this real?) You want to escape. (Is this what it feels like to have a heart attack?) And you are embarrassed if you are in public.
That may have been a panic attack, give or take a few symptoms. It may have lasted for 20 minutes, with a peak within 10 minutes of the initial symptoms. And symptoms can reoccur. In you, maybe it already has.
Anxiety stress or the fear of another panic attack—maybe anywhere, anytime—causes victims to avoid whatever they think might trigger an attack or might be an embarrassing or dangerous situation to be in when one occurs. People develop phobias about places, things, or situations. Their lives are shaped and interrupted by fear and avoidance. In extreme cases (some cases of agoraphobia), the sufferer may refuse to leave the safety of a home or bedroom.
Indeed, panic attacks themselves may be the proverbial tip of a larger anxiety or panic disorder “iceberg.” In the US alone, perhaps 1 in 113 people aged 18 to 54 suffer panic disorders in any given year, or about 1.7% (NIMH). It is twice as common in women as in men, although the sex ratio is about equal when occurring in prepubescent children. (Note however that men may not report panic attacks as often as women.) Age for the onset of the first panic attack is most common roughly between 12 and 19.
Symptoms in children experiencing panic attacks can include rapid heart beat, shortness of breath, sweating, bladder control problems, dry mouth, a lump in the throat, and cold or clammy hands.
Night time panic attacks occur at a rate of perhaps 10% of daytime ones, although between 40 and 70 percent of those suffering from daytime attacks will also have nocturnal ones. They can wake one from sleep for no apparent reason … and getting relaxed enough to go back to sleep after the ordeal can be difficult.
Although some panic attacks seem to come out of nowhere, as we mentioned others seem to be triggered by certain things, places, or situations. Relatively speaking, however, they are typically unexpected … and also sudden, intense, and seemingly uncontrollable.
Uncovering the underlying causes—perhaps a cumulative series stresses or traumas from the past, or nutritional or metabolic deficiencies, for example—shows the panic attacks are part of something bigger.
There is no shame in asking for a diagnosis and for help from a qualified professional. Others have had similar problems and help is available.
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