When people talk about panic attacks, they almost always use the words "scared, frightening and helpless" to describe their experience. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), a panic attack is the abrupt onset of intense fear or discomfort that reaches a peak within minutes." Though the trigger to a panic attack may not be immediately obvious, they can also be triggered by subtle cues, like certain somatic feelings. A panic attack includes at least four of the following symptoms per the ADAA:
Accelerated heart rate
Trembling or shaking
Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
Feelings of choking
Chest pain or discomfort
Nausea or abdominal distress
Light-headed, or faint
Chills or heat sensations
Paresthesia (numbness or tingling sensations)
Derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself)
Fear of losing control or “going crazy”
Fear of dying
Though the feeling of panic is a form of anxiety, panic attacks are slightly different from anxiety attacks. During a panic attack, the above symptoms are sudden and extremely abrupt without a clear trigger. A panic attack may last up to 10-15 minutes, but some people express having multiple attacks one behind the other, with difficulty determining when one ended or started. During a panic attack, the body’s autonomous fight-or-flight response takes over. The symptoms of a panic attack may continue even when the stressor is no longer present.
An anxiety attack tends to build gradually versus having a sudden onset. Anxiety is usually related to the anticipation of a stressful or threatening situation, experience, or event. With an anxiety attack people may feel their heart racing or feel short of breath, but it's very short lived, and when the stressor goes away, so does the anxiety attack. The symptoms of an anxiety attack are somewhat similar to those of a panic but are perceived as not as intense. Here are some symptoms of an anxiety attack:
Apprehension and worry
Heart palpitations and accelerated heart rate
Shortness of breath
Tightness in the throat or feeling like choking
Chills or hot flashes
Numbness or tingling (paresthesia)
Feeling faint or dizzy
While panic and anxiety attacks largely tend to be triggered by a perception of fear, there are certain medical conditions that may trigger a panic attack. This may include but not be limited to Thyroid condition(s), Acid Reflux or GERD and Mitral Valve Prolapse (MVP).
Dealing with a panic or anxiety attack can be very overwhelming. Ensure that you get adequate support, by having an immediate safety plan for when you may feel an attack approaching. Also have an ongoing safety plan such as reducing the stressors from your day to day life you have control over and increasing your time for self-care. This may mean improving your work/life balance, carving out time for relaxation and relaxing situations, scheduling an appointment with a healthcare provider to discuss your attacks and exploring treatment options.
If you are reading this information and feel you may have some concerns about anxiety, please seek support. May is Mental Health Awareness month, so give yourself permission to focus on caring for your mental health. Your day to day life matters.
*Information in this blog is for educational purposes and not intended to diagnose, treat or cure any health conditions.