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Sudden Fear: The Perplexity of the Panic Attack and 3 Ways to Cope

Re-establishing Calm

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Imagine walking several feet from the entrance of your favorite restaurant when suddenly fear overtakes you. Your heart pounds, your legs become unsteady, your breathing is scarce, and you feel bizarrely outside yourself. The hall leading to the restaurant flips upside down, and your arms extended due to your trying to escape the hallway that has gotten remarkably smaller. Confusion has twisted your mind, and you know for sure something ominous was about to occur.

You sit down and notice the hardness of the bench and the stability of the floor beneath your feet. Your breathing has now regulated, but you now feel emotionally and physically drained and confused.

What happened?

In this instance, this person experienced their first panic attack.

What is a Panic Attack?

A Panic Attack is an episode of sudden intense fear or discomfort in the body. It typically accompanies a mental and physical response and surges and reaches its peak within minutes. Panic Attacks can impact breathing, muscles, mental reality and can be debilitating and unexpected. Because panic attacks can occur unexpectedly, it is also possible to experience them while in a relaxed state or sleeping.

Generally, panic attacks occur in those who experience panic disorders but can further be experienced by those diagnosed with anxiety disorders, depression, substance abuse disorders, and even some medical conditions.

Why are Panic Attacks Perplexing?

For many, experiencing a panic attack for the first time can be very frightening and confusing due to its symptoms, frequency, and triggers. Panic attack symptoms typically mimic severe medical conditions such as heart disease, breathing illnesses, or thyroid problems, causing great confusion and concern. Many experiencing a panic attack believe they have a life-threatening issue and may opt to visit their medical provider or nearby emergency room due to the preceding. Concerning the frequency of panic attacks, some may experience it only once in their lifetime, while others may experience it more often, which can be confusing. And finally, what is even more perplexing is that its triggers or causes may or may not be apparent for some.

What are the Symptoms of a Panic Attack?

According to the American Psychiatric Association Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5 (DSM 5), a person will need to experience at least 4 of the following symptoms to have experienced a panic attack:

1. Palpitations

2. Sweating

3. Shaking

4. Shortness of breath or smothering sensation

5. Feelings of choking

6. Abdominal distress or nausea

7. Chest pain

8. Dizziness

9. Chills or heat sensations

10. Numbness or tingling

11. Feelings of unreality

12. Feelings of “going crazy”

13. Fear of dying

Panic Attack vs. Panic Disorder

Many believe that experiencing a panic attack is indicative of having a panic disorder. However, the two are noticeably different.

A Panic Attack is an episode of sudden intense fear or discomfort in the body and is not considered a mental health disorder. Conversely, a panic disorder is the recurring experience of a panic attack, which is not attributable to substance use or any other medical condition or reason. Panic disorders also entail experiencing persistent concern or worry about the possibility of having additional panic attacks and the exhibiting of maladaptive behaviors to curtail or avoid attacks.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, Panic Disorder affects 6 million adults or 2.7% of the U.S. population. Women are more likely to experience panic disorders than men.

Anxiety Disorder

Anxiety is a natural component of our emotional and protective responses to the world around us and is embedded or hardwired into our bodies. It can present as uneasiness, distress, or dread you feel before a particular event. However, when it interferes with your daily functioning, it would be more of a concern or possibly warrant a further look into a possible diagnosis of an anxiety disorder.

Anxiety Disorders are a group of disorders outlined in the DSM 5, which may share similar symptoms. Anxiety disorders tend to correlate with excessive worry about potential danger (real or perceived). Symptoms typically include mental concerns such as difficulty concentrating and restlessness, and physical problems such as disturbed sleep, fatigue, muscle tension, dizziness, or increased heart rate. Amongst mental illnesses in the United States, Anxiety is prevalent. It affects 40 million American adults or 18.1% of the population every year, per the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

Panic Disorder falls under anxiety disorders in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5.

3 Ways to Cope with a Panic Attack

Experiencing a panic attack can be scary and overly concerning. While there are several avenues one can take to treat their panic attacks, such as psychotherapy or prescribed medication by a doctor/psychiatrist, developing coping strategies and the preceding may also help manage panic attacks.

Here are three ways to help cope with a panic attack:

     1. Deep Breathing

Panic Attacks could make you feel as though you are losing your breath, unable to breathe, thus causing you to hyperventilate. Research has shown that by changing your breathing, you could help reduce this panic symptom. Engaging in long deep breaths allows you to minimize hyperventilating. Deep breathing for at least 15 times or focusing on counting breathes will enable you to refocus your attention away from the attack.

2. Practice Mindfulness and Grounding

While Panic attacks can cause a feeling of unreality or detachment, engaging in the practice of mindfulness is said to allow you to ground or connect in the world or reality surrounding you. During an attack, it would be essential for you to focus on the physical atmosphere around you by utilizing your senses to do the following: Touching objects near you such as feeling the texture of the chair you may be sitting on or feeling the surface of your shirt; Inhaling smells around you, such as food; Observing what may be immediately next to you such as a mother with her child; or Listening to what is going on in your environment, do you hear music? This behavior allows you to engage your senses and ground you firmly in reality, thus refocusing your thoughts.

3. Give your Brain a Task

When experiencing a panic attack, you may often feel as if something catastrophic is happening. It is during these times it would be essential to refocus your brain. Refocusing your mind allows you to minimize the fear associated with the current attack. There is a myriad of things you could focus on, such as a loved one, a pet, or a favorite activity. You can also focus on more tasking activities such as counting or saying the alphabet backward. Reaffirming positive statements to yourself, such as “I am safe,” “everything is fine,” “this will pass,” also helps to minimize your fear of the current attack.

*However, if in doubt, always secure a checkup with your medical provider to rule out any medical conditions.

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