Panic is the most extreme form of anxiety. Panic attacks can be very frightening and upsetting, as they may “feel like” a heart attack or otherwise feel very physically intense and overwhelming. Panic attacks usually include some of the following sensations and experiences:
Panic attacks usually come on with apparent suddenness (although the anxiety that climaxes in panic was usually present for a long time), last only a short while (5 to 30 minutes) and may occur only once in a lifetime or as often as several times each day. They can have an obvious trigger (a frightening event, place, person, or memory, for instance) or seem to occur for no reason—although therapists believe there is almost certainly always an explanation we can discover and address.
Panic attacks can be diagnosed as a panic disorder when panic attacks are recurrent, lead to worries about their recurrence or about having a heart attack, and interfere with functioning. Sometimes, panic attacks occur with agoraphobia, the fear of open places, crowds, and being outside one’s home or other contained, “safe” places. Even if agoraphobia is not present, panic attacks almost certainly indicate a difficulty in managing anxiety, which may in turn indicate a difficulty managing stress, anger, fear, grief, or other emotions.
• They cannot lead to a heart attack or stroke (the exception is with someone who has already developed serious, medical heart problems and is at risk for cardiac arrest in any stressful situation, but in this case the panic attack did not really “cause” a heart attack – the underlying heart problems did)
• They do not indicate one is “going crazy,” but are simply an outcome of intense anxiety
• They can be treated with medications in most cases
• They can also be treated without medications in most cases by treating anxiety
Knowing that, unless you already have serious heart problems, a panic attack is not an immediate threat to your physical well-being, may help people calm down when anxious. Doing some deep breathing, if you can remember and push yourself to do it, is an excellent way to quell panic. Resisting the feelings of anxiety tend to make panic worse, as it is ultimately impossible to “get away from” one’s one feelings. Learning to feel your emotions, deal with fears and challenges, and stay relaxed in the face of difficulties are a few ways therapy can help overcome panic.
Alexis, 40, seeks therapy to deal with depression, and reports to her therapist she has a history of panic attacks for which she takes tranquilizers. In consultation, Alexis’ psychiatrist agrees with the therapist that the tranquilizers may increase Alexis’ depression, and the three decide Alexis will try to go without these medications and address her panic through cognitive-behavioral therapy. By learning some deep breathing/relaxation skills, and by examining the emotions and thoughts that lead to anxiety (primarily fear and anger, in this case) and reality checking some of Alexis’ beliefs about anger, Alexis begins to be able to manage panic attacks before they intensify, and to work through her anxiety.
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Last updated: 12-13-2013