If you or anyone you know suffers from panic attacks, you know that the episodes can be terrifying and exhausting. Though panic attacks aren’t life-threatening, they can significantly impact quality of life; the good news is that treatment for panic attacks is available and can be very effective.
What is a Panic Attack?
Panic attacks are sudden, unexpected surges of intense fear during which several physical and psychological symptoms are present. Panic attacks are brief, lasting less than ten minutes, and they can occur without warning in a variety of circumstances – while you’re asleep, out shopping at the mall, while driving, or in the middle of a meeting.
Some of the symptoms of a panic attack can linger longer than ten minutes, and people who experience one panic attack are at greater risk for having subsequent panic attacks. Panic disorder is when someone experiences recurrent panic attack episodes that are unexpected and aren’t triggered by specific phobias or circumstances. Panic disorder is common and affects about six million adults in the US.
Panic attacks and the symptoms of panic disorder often start in the late teen years or early adulthood, and women are twice as likely as men to be affected. While it is not clear what causes panic attacks and panic disorder, the risk of having panic attacks or developing a panic disorder may be increased by:
- traumatizing events, such as a major accident or an assault
- a history of childhood abuse, whether sexual or physical
- big life changes such as a new child, starting a new job or divorce
- life stressors such as the illness or death of a loved one
- a family history of panic attacks or panic disorder
The physical and psychological reactions during a panic attack occur when there is no real danger or obvious cause. The fear that a person experiences during a panic attack is out of proportion with the situation and their surrounding circumstances.
What are the Symptoms of a Panic Attack?
People who are experiencing a panic attack may feel like they’re having a heart attack, going crazy, losing control or dying. Most people who suffer panic attacks experience several of the following symptoms:
- shortness of breath
- rapid heart rate
- abdominal cramps
- feeling weak
- feeling lightheaded
- shortness of breath or breathing difficulties
- sense of terror, impending doom, or death
- chest pains
- feeling like you’re losing control
- numbness or tingling in the hands and fingers.
What Can You Do to Mitigate Panic Attacks?
Panic attacks can make you feel like you’re losing control of your body, and it may seem like there’s nothing you can do to make it stop. During a panic attack, there are a few things you can do to reduce the severity of the symptoms of a panic attack episode. These include:
When a panic attack sets in, one way to take back control is to know what to do in the situation, such as removing yourself from the room, sitting down or sending a pre-written text to a friend to call for support
Practicing muscle relaxation techniques
There are several techniques for muscle relaxation. You can try using progressive muscle relaxation. You begin by clenching your fists and holding the clench for a ten-count. When you get to ten, release the clench and let your hands relax completely.
Next, try the same technique with your feet, clenching or bunching up your toes and then releasing them. Gradually work your way up your body clenching and relaxing the different muscle groups: legs, glutes, abdomen, back, shoulders, neck, and face.
Focusing on an object
This gives your mind something to do. Pay close attention to a tree, a bicycle, a flower, your shoes or whatever is in your field of vision; whether it’s near or far, take note of everything about it, including textures, patterns, size and color, its imagined weight and more. You can say what you have observed out loud or in your head.
Repeating a phrase
Say a phrase or a prayer repeatedly to help you cope, such as “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” or “This will pass, I am in the Lord’s hands” or “I will be okay, I just need to breathe.” This will reassure and encourage you.
Practicing breath control
Practicing deep breathing can help reduce the sense of losing control as well as the shortness of breath that usually accompanies panic attacks. Take in a deep breath for a few seconds, hold it briefly, then release your breath slowly again over a few seconds. Counting out the seconds of holding and releasing your breath will help to keep you focused on that and stop you from hyperventilating.
How Can You Help Someone Who Has Panic Attacks?
While having a panic attack can be a harrowing experience, so too, in its own way, is seeing a friend or other loved one going through a panic attack. There may be little you can do to stop your loved one’s panic attack, but you can assist them while they are going through the episode and afterward.
You can help your loved one by:
- helping them with their breathing. You can count out the seconds for them to take in and release their breath
- staying with them and being a calming and understanding presence during and after the attack. If they need help leaving the environment they are in, give them the assistance they need
- reading up on panic attacks and panic disorder, pointing your loved one to helpful resources for mitigating panic attacks, and urging them to seek assistance from a doctor or mental health professional.
Is There a Treatment for Panic Attacks?
Thankfully, panic disorder and panic attacks are treatable conditions. While there’s no sure way to prevent panic attacks or panic disorder, getting treatment and sticking to your treatment for panic attacks sooner rather than later may help in reducing the frequency and intensity of the attacks.
Medications and therapy have both been used, either singly or in combination, to successfully treat panic disorder. Your treatment path will depend upon your preferences, your medical history and the severity of your attacks and their symptoms.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is one of the more effective treatments for panic attacks and panic disorder. During CBT, you will work with a therapist on relaxation training, exposure treatment, reorienting and restructuring your thoughts and behaviors, mindfulness, and stress reduction.
Many people that suffer from panic attacks begin noticing a reduction in attacks within weeks, and symptoms often significantly decrease or go away completely within a few months.
If medication is necessary, your doctor may prescribe anti-anxiety medications to help prevent or control the episodes in panic attacks and panic disorder. Ask your doctor what types of medications are available and their potential side effects to make an informed decision about what is best for you.
Finding the Help You Need
If you’ve been experiencing panic attacks or suspect you may have panic disorder, you must seek diagnosis and treatment from your doctor or mental health professional. Some of the symptoms of panic attacks resemble other health conditions, and so getting checked out to correctly diagnose your condition and eliminate other possibilities matters.
Remember, you aren’t alone in this, and taking care of your mental health is a priority for your sake and the sake of your family and friends.
There are a variety of resources available to you for advice and support, whether in the form of support groups or online. Consider contacting a Christian therapist for cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), one of the more effective treatments for panic attacks and panic disorder.
In addition to the therapist working with you on relaxation training, exposure treatment, reorienting and restructuring your thoughts and behaviors, mindfulness, and stress reduction, they will also bring biblical understanding to the situation to help you on your journey.
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