Do you, at times, have a sudden or abrupt surge of anxiety and overwhelming fear that lasts several minutes? 

Do you, in those instances, feel that you can’t breathe, sweat frantically and feel your heart pounding very fast? 

Does this happen without any obvious trigger, and come with the anxiety of having another such attack?

If you’ve ever experienced any of that (or more), you probably have had a panic attack. According to worldwide statistics, it is estimated that 1 to 2% of the world’s general population will suffer from panic disorder in any given year and 5% of the population will suffer from this disorder at some point of their lives. It is the fifth most disabling mental health problem in the developed world.

So, don’t worry, you’re not alone. And you don’t have to deal with this alone, either. 

If you or anyone you know are suffering from the common signs and symptoms of a panic attack, it is important to visit a doctor or go to the emergency room of a hospital to rule out any medical condition.

At the same time, know that help is possible, and with Incontact’s mental health professionals with years of experience in dealing with people who have panic disorder (and other mental health issues), and a bit of cooperation from your side, wellness is guaranteed.

Read on further to know more about this condition.

What is a panic attack?

A panic attack is an abrupt surge of intense anxiety that is characterized by severe physical manifestations that are shortness of breath, choking, nausea, dizziness, chest pain and discomfort, etc. 

All of this makes panic attacks feel extremely debilitating and overwhelmingly difficult to handle. 

During a panic attack, a person may even experience an unexplained fear of going crazy or a fear of dying. Such attacks are entirely unexpected and occur out of the blue. They may not even have an apparent cause or trigger. It can occur for only once and never happen again or, like in most cases, it may be a recurring condition where it is triggered by a particular stimulus. If you are experiencing such recurring panic attacks then you probably have a condition called panic disorder.
While the exact statistics for panic disorder and panic attacks remain unknown for Singapore, a cross-national epidemiology study of panic attacks and panic disorder in World Mental Health  surveys reveals that among persons who’ve ever had a panic attack, around 66.5% have recurrent panic attacks. Recurrent panic attacks, according to this study, are also associated with an onset of a variety of other mental health disorders.

Signs & Symptoms of a Panic Attack

Panic attacks’ symptoms may occur abruptly and out of the blue as stated above and reach their highest intensity i.e peak within the first 10-15 minutes. You may have

panic attacks occasionally or they may frequent whenever your triggering stimuli is present in the environment. You’ll feel exhausted and tired once the panic attack subsides, which it takes about 20-30 minutes to do. Panic attacks rarely exceed an hour. 

Their symptoms may have some variations but typically, a person experiencing such an attack will have the following symptoms:

Mental Symptoms:

  • Depersonalization: Feeling detached from oneself
  • Derealization: feelings of unreality
  • A fear of going crazy, dying or losing control

Physical Symptoms:

  • Shortness of breath and hyperventilation
  • Shaking, trembling
  • A feeling of choking
  • Palpitations or increasing heart beat
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea 
  • Chest pain and discomfort
  • Hot and cold flashes
  • Numbness
  • Tingling sensations in the limbs
  • A feeling of dizziness and light-headedness 
  • Sweating
  • Abdominal pain

Effects of Panic Attack

The effects of a panic attack are long-term even though a panic attack usually subsides under a half an hour. Recurring panic attacks, on top of that, are even more intensely debilitating and disrupt your emotional equilibrium terribly. Panic disorder thus has the following long-term symptoms: 

  1. Anxiety in anticipation of having another panic attack: You’ll feel increasingly anxious and tense instead of feeling healthy and normal between your panic attacks. This is because you will fear having another panic attack. 
  2. Avoiding certain situations and places: You’ll begin to avoid certain places, objects, scenarios as you may believe that that specific stimuli caused your panic attack. Such avoidance based responses can turn into agoraphobia in extreme cases. 

Causes of Panic Attack

The exact cause of panic disorder and panic attacks, just like how it is with other mental conditions, are unknown. However, there are some risk factors and some physical ailments that can lead to the development of this problem. They’re as follows:

  • Experience of trauma earlier in life
  • Genetics i.e having a close family member with panic disorder
  • An imbalance of neurotransmitters in the brain or changes in the way some areas of your brain function
  • Having a temperament or diathesis that makes you more prone to negative emotions and stress
  • Stressful lifestyle or life challenges
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Hypoglycemia
  • Stimulant use
  • Withdrawal from medication
  • Mitral valve prolapse which is a cardiac problem

Treatment of Panic Attack

While there is no “cure” for panic disorder, just like for most psychological problems, it is certainly treatable. For panic attack disorder, both therapeutic intervention plan and medication can be required. The treatment, its duration, kind of therapy, etc. will depend on your symptoms and their intensity.

Psychotherapy: 

A form of therapy called EMDR, that is, eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing is also very effective for panic attack disorder and is statistically proven to successfully help individuals with anxiety-based disorders recover. Another effective therapy for panic disorder and shortest in duration is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). It will help you identify your distorted way of thinking and your associations with the triggering stimuli. You’ll learn different ways in which you can respond to situations. You’ll learn more helpful techniques of thinking, behaving, and responding to your outer environment and your inner emotions. At Incontact, we have specializations in both CBT and EMDR along with rigorous training in other forms of therapy as well. We help make a positive change through a broad-ranging approach, creating a unique therapeutic plan for your specific needs.

Medication for panic attacks are different in types, the most commonly prescribed of which are: 

  • SSRIs or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors
  • Beta blockers
  • Benzodiazepines 
  • SNRIs or serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors

The medication may take upto a few weeks or months to start working. But they also prove to be effective and helpful for reducing the symptoms of the disorder. While medication does have side-effects, they aren’t severe. 

Another thing that will help facilitate the treatment is a healthy lifestyle and good habits. Going to bed on time, eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly can bring about a lot of change.

Self Help for Panic Attack: What to do when you’re experiencing a panic attack, and what to do after?

During a panic attack: 

Do not resist the attack and try to stay put, and not move. Try to control your breath and inhale and exhale deeply. Remember that the attack will go away and the symptoms are going to subside. Try to visualize a peaceful, calming place or imagery that makes you feel positive sensations.

Other tips to prevent further attacks and help subside other symptoms:

  • Read about your condition and read upon CBT based principles. 
  • Consider joining a support group and discuss your problems within the group as freely and openly as possible. 
  • Learn stress management techniques like progressive muscle relaxation, creative visualization. 
  • Try apps that use guided meditation to help you relax and practice mindfulness regularly. 
  • Do remember to workout regularly and avoid unhealthy foods and alcohol, cigarettes, etc.

Frequently Asked Questions about Panic Attacks

Q. What are the differences in the symptoms of a panic attack and a heart attack? How to differentiate between the two?

The symptoms of a heart attack and a panic attack are quite similar, and it can be tough to differentiate. If you aren’t sure what you’re experiencing, it’s best to go to the emergency department of a hospital to get evaluated.

Q. Which category of disorders does panic disorder fall under?

Panic disorder is classified as an anxiety disorder and it can be treated with medication and therapy.

Q. Are there any natural remedies for panic attacks?

No, there aren’t any natural remedies for panic attacks, however you can start developing some good lifestyle habits to prevent the recurrence of one.

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