13 Common Panic Attack Myths Debunked
Panic attack causing a heart attack? How long can a panic attack last? Can panic attacks make you faint? The answers might surprise you!
A HEART CONDITION? REALLY!?
I found this interesting question asked on 7cups the other day. “Is it possible to faint from a panic attack?”
Some of the answers are funny, others are near-frightening. Here are some examples:
“One of the ways is by a change in your blood pressure which means you faint.”
“Yes, but it usually indicates a heart condition.”
You’ve got to be some kind of ass to lie about heart conditions to people suffering with panic attacks. In case you wondered, changes in blood pressure do not cause fainting during panic attacks, and fainting does not indicate a heart condition.
More on that later.
I decided to debunk many of the myths I see circulated often, and some might surprise you.
1) MY HEART IS BEATING TOO FAST
You are probably familiar with the feeling of your heart racing and beating out of your chest.
It is not uncommon to assume this is more than your poor heart can handle, and that it will give in any moment. So how fast can a healthy heart beat? You’ll find a rough estimate in the chart below.
Did you find your number? Now I want you to keep 170 in mind, because that is the heart rate I often hit when doing cardio.
The average panic attack will rocket your heart rate to… 129 beats per minute. But wait… that’s nothing! My cardio exercises alone will typically get me 41 beats per minute higher than that!
In fact, you could have the heart of a 100 year old, and you’d still be perfectly fine.
2) CHEST PAIN EQUALS HEART ISSUES
If a racing heart stirs up fear, a sharp chest pain stirs up more. You might assume something is sick, failing, or damaged. That is what we usually associate with pain.
A panicked mind will very quickly associate chest pain with heart attacks. But let’s not confuse the two.
If the pain is sharp and localized, it is almost certainly anxiety.
I still advise scheduling an appointment with a medical practitioner to rule out heart related issues.
So what causes the pain, if not a struggling heart? The answer is quite boring, really. Muscle spasms. These spasms are not dangerous and will typically cause a sudden stabbing pain.
They are very normal during panic attacks, which is why this symptom is documented so frequently.
3) PANIC ATTACKS ARE HARMFUL
We have already looked at heart rate and chest pain, and we determined they were not dangerous nor harmful. Let’s also examine shortness of breath.
Your breathing speeds up during panic attacks because your brain expects to either run or fight. It doesn’t know the threat is fake. This panicked breathing pattern is referred to as hyperventilation. It causes most of the symptoms we associate with panic attacks.
- Dizziness and faintness
- Numbness and tingling sensations
- Shortness of breath
- Out of body sensations
- Contributes to chest pain
Although the symptoms are uncomfortable, hyperventilation is not harmful. Nothing a panic attack throws at you can cause you harm.
4) PANIC ATTACKS CAN’T BE CURED
Both medication and therapy can be used to effectively treat panic attacks and panic disorders. Panic disorders are “highly responsive to treatment”, in the words of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
However, we also know that only 36.9% of people receive treatment for their anxiety disorders. Cognitive behavioral therapy and medications are typically the go-to options when treatment is being sought.
5) PANIC ATTACKS CAN BE CURED OVERNIGHT
Some people claim panic attacks can’t be cured at all, others will try to convince you they can be cured over night.
You’ll often see claims like these on scam sites trying to sell miracle cures. There is no miracle cure for panic attacks. The truth is that long-term recovery requires radical life changes.
No pill, course, program, video, book, etc. will magically change every aspect of your life. Only hard work over time can guarantee those results.
6) DRUGS ARE NECESSARY FOR RECOVERY
I completely understand if you want to avoid anxiety medications. They have unpleasant side-effects and can make you feel emotionally numb.
It isn’t the perfect answer it was made out to be. I was on medication when I was younger, so I know how weird it can make you feel.
Medication should be a last-resort when treating anxiety and depression. I feel this way because cognitive behavioral therapy repeatedly has shown equal or better results than existing drugs.
Not to badmouth drugs, they do work, but they are horribly sloppy. The only way to guarantee a recovery is to make lasting changes to your lifestyle and thought patterns.
7) AVOIDANCE IS A GOOD COPING STRATEGY
Avoidance might seem like the perfect answer to your anxiety and panic triggers. No triggers mean no anxiety, right? Not really.
In fact the very worst thing you can do is to practice avoidance. Every time you avoid something you are reinforcing the idea that you can’t handle the situation or location.
Running away becomes your only coping mechanism. The more you avoid, the more limited you become in your daily life. This is how agoraphobia will typically begin.
Remember that exposure is the only way you can practice healthy coping techniques.
8) YOU CAN LOSE CONTROL DURING A PANIC ATTACK
It’s entirely normal to feel like you are losing control during a panic attack. I don’t even disagree with the premise, we do lose control. If you lose some control, what is stopping you from losing all?
Let me put it into perspective. Imagine a time when you were either:
- Very angry
- Deeply in love
Do you see what they have in common? Whenever your brain REALLY wants something, you end up feeling like you are not in the driver’s seat.
What your brain wants during a panic attack is to run away. Just like with anger, love, and arousal, panic does not make you go crazy. You are still in control.
9) PANIC ATTACKS CAN LEAD TO SUFFOCATION
It was briefly mentioned earlier that hyperventilation causes shortness of breath. This is what some experience as a feeling of suffocation.
During hyperventilation you breathe out too much CO2, and this reduction messes up oxygen delivery. Even though you are breathing in more oxygen than you need, it is not being delivered properly to the rest of your body.
This is why some people report passing out during panic attacks, because the brain is not getting enough oxygen. So hyperventilation can cause fainting, but that is the worst it can do.
Suffocation is never a possibility because:
- It feels like you’re not getting enough air, but you already have more than enough oxygen
- You would pass out long before suffocating
- You won’t suffocate while passed out because your body breathes on it’s own
10) PANIC ATTACKS COME OUT OF NOWHERE
It might feel like panic attacks appear out of the blue, and some will argue that they do. I don’t agree with this stance because it makes us believe that stopping a panic attack is impossible.
The truth is that most panic attacks are set into motion by overreactions to harmless stimuli and catastrophic thinking. The important take away is that everyone can learn to control these reactions and thoughts through practice.
11) FEELING [INSERT ANY SYMPTOM OF PANIC ATTACKS] MEANS YOU’LL HAVE A PANIC ATTACK
Bad things happen when we start associating specific sensations with panic attacks.
Let me explain. A mind not trained in the arts of anxious thinking will shrug off odd sensations. (Like an elevated heart rate, dizzy spell, chest pain, etc.)
If you regularly have panic attacks your immediate reaction to these same sensations might be: “I am having another panic attack.”
This belief is then followed by “what if” thoughts like:
- “What if I pass out?”
- “What if my heart stops?”
More often than not, it is these thoughts that end up causing actual panic attacks. Treat the thoughts, and you have effectively treated the panic attack.
12) PANIC ATTACKS ARE SHORT IN DURATION
The belief appears to be that panic attacks come and go in a matter of minutes. In truth, it is not uncommon for a panic attack to last 30 minutes or more.
The peak will usually hit within 10 minutes, but returning to a calm state can take hours.
13) STRESS AND WORRY CAUSE PANIC ATTACKS
Being stressed and worried does increase the likelihood of having panic attacks. This is why the first step in any recovery should be lowering overall stress and worry levels.
In some circumstances this alone can be enough to stop panic attacks. It is also possible that it changes nothing, because neither stress nor worry is a root cause of panic attacks.
Being less stressed/worried can take the edge off. But it won’t fundamentally change the way you approach anxiety and panic attacks.
As always, thanks for spending some of your time here with me. Feel free to leave questions and/or remarks below. I love reading your feedback!