Without warning, the panic comes crashing down. Your esophagus feels like it is closing up.
Gasping for air, your heart pounds out of your chest, and the thought of possibly dying lingers in your mind. Sweating and becoming dizzy, you sit down, too weak to stand. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, calmness overcomes the panic.
Panic Disorder, according to The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), comes on suddenly and are repeated attacks of fear which will last several minutes or even longer. NIMH also stated in an article, “Panic Disorder: When Fear Overwhelms,” that panic attacks can occur at any time, and some may feel like they are having a heart attack.
Dr. Peggy Skinner, chairperson of the Behavioral Sciences Department and Professor of Psychology at South Plains College, said that “Panic attacks feel like a heart attack because the body is responding to a perceived danger, and the sympathetic nervous system responds with a fight or flight reaction.”
Dr. Skinner added, “If you really had to run or fight, your heart needs to beat faster.”
Dr. Skinner said that when someone is in this fight or flight reaction, people perspire in order to cool the body. Their blood pressure will increase, and the stomach will empty, which could make one feel sick.
“Those all are signals of a heart attack as well,” Dr. Skinner said. “Then these fight–or–flight symptoms increase the perception of danger, and this escalates.”
Dr. Skinner also mentioned that panic attacks usually occur in young adults who are in their 20s and 30s.
“They occur across the life span,” said Dr. Skinner, “and some children have them. But the majority are young adults.”
She added that 75 percent of panic attacks are experienced by females rather than males.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), 2 to 3 percent of Americans experience panic disorder.
However, WebMD clarifies a distinction between having panic attacks and having panic disorder by stating that one in 10 adults in America will have panic attacks each year, and about a third of people will have one in their lifetime. But most people do not have panic disorder.
“Not everyone who has panic attacks has panic disorder,” said Lynn Gregory, a counselor at South Plains College. “Panic attacks can turn into panic disorder if left untreated.”
Dr. Skinner mentioned that a variety of things can cause panic attacks.
“It often occurs with a person who has some level of anxiety that is then triggered by stress,” explained Dr. Skinner.
The higher the level of stress, such as a break up, failing a class, or a family disruption, is likely to bring on the first attack, according to Dr. Skinner
“The first attack then causes the fear of having another attack,” Dr. Skinner said, “along with the social stigma of having something wrong.”
People may remember the situation or place in which the panic attack occurred, according to Dr. Skinner, and that could become a new trigger, which causes the person to avoid those things. If left untreated, it can sometimes develop into agoraphobia, which is a fear of being outside.
Some symptoms of panic attacks include physical manifestations such as a pounding or fast heartbeat, sweating, feeling dizzy/faint, fear of dying or becoming insane. Other symptoms are trembling/shaking, shortness of breath/feeling smothered, chest pain, nausea, stomach pains, numbness/tingling in the body, feeling unreal, and having a choking feeling. These symptoms in an attack usually last between 5 and10 minutes. However, they can linger for hours.
Gregory explained that a diagnosis is also made if panic attacks are not caused by drugs or other substance usage.
Some biological factors may run in families, according to Dr. Skinner, “such as the predisposition to anxiety.”
“The person might also learn to respond to certain physiological sensations from seeing another family member with panic attacks,” added Dr. Skinner.
Researchers have conducted several studies in order to pinpoint particular parts in the brain which are involved with anxiety and fear. Fear comes so humans can deal with danger, triggering a protective response immediately without conscious thought. The fear response is believed to be coordinated by a part of the brain called the amygdala, which is at the end of the hippocampus and is part of the Limbic System.
According to the “Brain Made Simple,” the amygdala is the reason why humans are afraid of things which are outside of our control. The amygdala also controls how one reacts to an event perceived as possibly being dangerous or a threat.
“Panic attacks and panic disorder are treatable,” Gregory said, “following a complete physical exam to rule out physical issues like heart or thyroid problems.”
Gregory said that for those diagnosed with panic attacks or panic disorder, the main treatment is therapy.
A good way to start treatment is by learning about stress and how to deal with stress, according to Dr. Skinner.
“Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is one of the best because it helps the person recognize the triggers or signals and explain them,” Dr. Skinner explained. “If I feel a fear, I learn to look at that fear as one that is rational or irrational and develop ways to cope.”
Another type of therapy is exposure therapy.
“This is where the person learns to have other responses when exposed to the fearful situations,” Dr. Skinner said.
Dr. Skinner explained that it is sort of like telling a child who fell off their bicycle to get back on, instead of putting the bycicle away and being afraid of the possibility that they could fall again.
“Medication may also be combined with therapy,” said Gregory, with SSRI antidepressants being the first choice for treatment.
“Medication has proven very effective for people with panic disorder, but can only be prescribed by a physician or other medical professional,” added Gregory.
She also mentioned that doctors will typically work hand in hand with therapists to help those suffering with panic disorder.
According to Calm Clinic, in the event of a panic attack, the first thing to do is to reduce the anxiety, and the second is to decrease the likelihood of having panic attacks.
Some of the steps to reduce anxiety are to take conscious control of breathing by taking slow, deep, breaths. Then get to a quiet place, which will help to regroup. Panic attacks are self-limiting and will end. Consciously imagining a positive situation, such as picturing a beautiful nature setting, also can help.
Steps to decrease the likelihood of having panic attacks are learning about anxiety and panic attacks, learning how to intuitively relax muscles, and desensitizing through exposure, gradually being exposed to the things which may cause the fear.
Dr. Skinner said that all mental health seems to have a stigma attached, though it is better than it used to be.
Dr. Skinner explained that some people are able to say, “Hey, I’m a little off today because I have a cold,” but aren’t yet able to say, “Hey, I’m a little off today due to having a panic attack.”
Dr. Skinner says it would be nice for people to one day be able to say that, adding “articles about mental health helps to educate people and hopefully continue to reduce the stigma.”
Dr. Skinner suggests that SPC students searching for help should begin with SPC’s Counseling Center. She also suggests to try another therapist if you feel that one is not helping, instead of quitting treatment.
Counselors at the Health and Wellness Center at South Plains College can screen for panic attacks and panic disorder. They can even treat some cases and make appropriate referrals when needed.
Gregory said that each session is kept confidential.