What Is a Panic Attack? 

A panic attack is an overwhelming feeling of particularly strong anxiety.

During the attack, you can be completely convinced that you are about to die. You can feel how the heart beats extremely fast or hard, how it becomes harder and harder to breathe and how you get dizzy. Central to panic disorder in particular is that it is a very intense bodily discomfort. It is easy to be fooled by this and not understand that what is going on has a psychological reason, not a physical one. Panic attacks are often part of the symptom picture of panic syndrome.

Symptoms of a panic attack

A panic attack usually does not last very long, between a couple of minutes up to a maximum of an hour. For those who experience the attack, however, it is agonizing minutes. In the meantime, you often experience an increase in anxiety, but eventually you have reached the anxiety peak and the levels turn downward again. 

The first time you experience a panic attack, it is common to feel very confused and scared. It’s a very different experience and if you haven’t felt it before, it’s hard to know what’s going on. Often the panic attack is associated with specific places and situations where it has been experienced before. For example, you can start avoiding shops, flights or other places where you last experienced a panic attack. By avoiding these places, one thinks that one can also avoid the panic disorder.

Unfortunately, this often leads to the problem being perpetuated, as avoiding the moment solves the anxiety, and the brain learns that an effective way to escape the anxiety is to avoid the situation where you start to feel it. This can become limiting for the person who may no longer live his life the way he wishes, and then it can be good to go for a treatment, for example CBT.

Panic attack cause

A panic attack rarely comes unexpectedly. They often appear after periods of high stress, or when you have to do things, you are very nervous or afraid of. They can also occur after trauma or crises in life. Why you get a panic attack can have several different reasons. Some can feel when it’s coming, and for others it comes completely unexpectedly. Common to a panic attack, however, is that the body overinterprets signals of danger, and thus prepares the body for the very worst. In patients with panic syndrome, you can often see that they have an increased vigilance and are very attentive to both bodily sensations (such as heart rate and breathing) and impressions from the environment (such as other people, emergency exits, escape routes and so on). It may also be difficult to interpret, above all, the bodily signals in a realistic way.

Panic attacks are also associated with other mental illnesses, such as social phobia and anxiety disorders.

Panic disorder treatment

To treat panic disorder, cognitive behavioral therapy, CBT, is usually used. The treatment often includes a slow exposure, where you expose yourself in small steps to situations where you yourself think you will have a panic attack. You can also work more focused on thoughts and feelings connected to the panic disorder. How to deal with the problem is included in the assessment that the therapist makes at the beginning of the therapy, together with you as the client.

Sometimes it may not be the panic attack itself that is the primary problem, and in these cases, you can work on areas other than just the panic attack. Hopefully, such a focus also contributes to remedying symptoms linked to the panic disorder. For many people, panic attacks come and go in life in line with their general mental state, but it is not uncommon for people to only have panic attacks a few times and then not experience them anymore. Treatments for panic disorder are effective in many cases. 

Not sure if your symptoms are related to panic attacks or general anxiety? Check out the infographic below!

Infographic created by MD Infusions, a Northbrook ketamine clinic