Anyone who’s ever had panic attacks will tell you that they feel horrible and science knows so little about where they come from. Here are some things we definitely do know:
PANIC ATTACKS FEEL LIKE YOU’RE GOING CRAZY…YOU’RE NOT
Panic attacks feel like a sudden feeling of being overwhelmed or out of control of your mind and body. There is often a significant increase in heart rate, respiration, and blood pressure. People may shake or sweat and it is really common to think that you are having a heart attack or going insane. Lots of people get GI issues including feeling nauseous or getting an upset stomach. Panic attacks generally feel dreadful, like your body and mind are running wild without your consent.
THEY CAN HAPPEN ALMOST ANYWHERE
Panic attacks can be triggered by many different thoughts or experiences and it’s not uncommon to have no idea what triggered your most recent attack. Sometimes just the fact that you’ve had an attack in a specific place (like the produce aisle at Trader Joe’s) can trigger another attack when you are in that setting again. When people get repeated panic attacks outside of their home this can cause agoraphobia which, in it’s most extreme forms, keep people shut inside their homes for fear of feeling panicked and out of control should they go outside.
PANIC ATTACKS ARE TREATABLE
One of the best things we can do to treat panic attacks is realize that although panic is really uncomfortable, nothing catastrophic is going to happen. In other words, we learn to tolerate the feelings of panic, which then gives panic less and less power over time. One way to do this is to think logically about the worst thing that could actually happen as a result of panicking. At work, the worst thing that could happen is usually that you need to spend some time recovering in the bathroom or by talking to a trusted coworker. At the grocery, the worst thing that could happen is you get so distracted by panicking that you don’t get your shopping done and you have to come back another time. You might have thoughts of humiliating yourself in front of others but realistically nothing seriously embarrassing or awful happens during a panic attack. You just feel uncomfortable.
THEY FEEL CATASTROPHIC (BUT THEY’RE NOT)
Usually the thing that people do to worsen a panic attack is allow themselves to believe that this time something catastrophic really will happen. The more you believe that a panic attack is actually something dangerous the more likely you are to feel more panicky. For some people a mantra like “it’s just a panic attack, it feels bad but I’m safe” can be really helpful to defuse the pattern of panic (and avoid panicking about panic).
PANIC STARTS WITH MISINTERPRETATION
One hypothesis about the origins of panic attacks is that people misinterpret harmless body sensations as being indicators that a panic attack is starting and then panic about the possibility of panicking. Before you know it, you are in a full blown panic attack. For that reason, a therapist will often teach you some basic skills and knowledge and then encourage you to do things that simulate panic. You might be encouraged to spin around (so that you feel dizzy), hold your breath (so that you feel hot and short of breath), or do jumping jacks (to get your heart rate and adrenaline elevated) and have you notice that feeling the symptoms of panic is actually not dangerous like your mind tells you it is.
The bottom line: panic attacks can be caused by lots of different thoughts and situations and panicking feels dreadful. However, panic is never actually dangerous, it’s just uncomfortable, and one of the best treatments for reducing panic over time is to learn to tolerate the feelings that you get during an attack.
If you are someone you know is struggling with panic attacks, reach out and schedule an appointment.