Imagine you are on your way to the grocery store when your chest starts to feel tight. You begin sweating and notice that you can’t seem to catch your breath. You may try to slow down your breathing, but you keep getting distracted by fearful thoughts about what’s happening to you. You wonder if you should call 911, but the numbness in your hands makes it hard to handle your phone, and you can’t think of any good reason you’d be having a heart attack. You get to the grocery store parking lot and decide to make the call. You pull out your phone, but your hands are no longer shaking. You’re taking full deep breaths. The dread seems to have been replaced by the sense that things are generally at least okay, though far from perfect. You’ve just had a panic attack, also commonly called an anxiety attack. Almost five percent of adults have panic attacks. The good news is there’s something you can do about them.
Are Anxiety Attacks Real?
“Anxiety attacks aren’t technically a thing, at least not according to medical terminology. It’s a layperson’s term for a panic attack. Panic attacks are intense attacks of fear and anxiety that may occur without warning. They often occur in response to a stressful event.”
It’s easy for people to use the term “anxiety attack” and “panic attack” interchangeably and that’s okay. The key takeaway is to recognize the symptoms – then you can start getting better.
What Is A Panic Attack?
A panic attack is an abrupt episode of extreme fear that causes serious physical consequences in the absence of actual danger and without an obvious cause. If you’re suffering from a panic attack, you could be very frightened. When the attack happens, you might believe you’re spinning out of control, suffering a heart attack, or close to dying. The criteria for an anxiety disorder have been updated in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
Symptoms Of A Panic Attack
Symptoms of anxiety and panic attacks fall into three categories:
- Physical – lightheadedness, sweating, shortness of breath, or diarrhea.
- Anxious thoughts – believing in the worst possible scenarios, constantly worrying, an all-or-nothing mentality, or making broad assumptions about an event without corroborating evidence.
- Anxious behaviors – this may include avoiding events or situations which trigger anxiety or panic, thirsting for reassurance from others, second-guessing yourself, you become frustrated or irritated during situations you’ve come to fear, and compulsive actions.
What’s The Main Difference?
According to experts at the University of Pittsburgh and Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, the major differences between anxiety and panic attacks are force of symptoms, duration of the symptoms, and the recognition of a trigger.
“The symptoms for anxiety and panic attacks can be similar to each other. However, symptoms from panic attacks are usually more intense compared to those experienced with anxiety.”
Whether you suffer from anxiety or a panic attack, symptoms are treatable.
How To Handle An Anxiety Attack
Panic attacks can be mentally and physically draining, and they are often hard to manage. Everyone reacts to anxiety differently, but there are steps you can take to manage the symptoms, including:
- Ketamine infusion therapy. This treatment may work by helping to strengthen neurotransmitters (glutamate) in the brain, which are responsible for transmitting pain signals.
- Recognize the triggers and give yourself the ability to talk through them. Common triggers may include caffeine, alcohol, tobacco, stressful situations, or being alone.
- Extricate yourself from the situation. Being strong enough to walk away from whatever causes the attack is key to preventing future attacks.
- Use grounding techniques, identifying things you can see, touch, hear, smell, or taste.
- Mindful breathing and meditation.
- Prepare a script of positive thoughts. Write a quick sentence or two with positive thoughts to address a specific trigger. If you think you’re going to die, tell yourself why that’s not likely.
- Distract yourself from becoming consumed by the trigger. Try things like calling a friend, watching a movie, listening to music, picturing yourself in a safe environment, or going for a walk.
- Learn to recognize the physical symptoms of anxiety or a panic attack.
- Talk to a medical doctor or a mental health specialist for diagnosis and to learn about possible treatment options.
- Panic attacks can sometimes be overcome by using muscle relaxation techniques.
Finally, know when to seek help and rely on trusted family or friends for support. With time and care, panic attack symptoms can be overcome.
Diagnosis & Treatment
To help arrive at a diagnosis for anxiety or a panic attack, you may have to undergo:
- A thorough physical exam by a medical doctor.
- Blood or lab tests to validate how your thyroid functions, other potential conditions, and tests on your heart, like an electrocardiogram.
- A psychological assessment to talk about symptoms, fears or worries, stress triggers, relationship issues, avoidance symptoms, and personal and family history of mental illness.
All symptoms are compared to criteria in the DSM-5. Your doctor will then recommend treatment, which may include psychotherapy, self-help, non-medicinal coping methods, antidepressants, or medicine like ketamine infusion therapy.
Panic attacks are a challenging part of many people’s lives. If you suffer from chronic panic attacks or other symptoms of mental illness, we’re here to help. It’s time for mental illness to stop managing your life. With time, care, and support, you can can take back control of your life. Contact us today to learn more.