We were sitting on a bench in a bus stop, talking about our lives, when suddenly my friend started breathing faster.
From being completely at ease, she was now shaking, her face flushed, and hands damp with sweat. “I thought I was going to die”, she told me later.
This was her first panic attack. Though, we initially didn’t recognize it, we later had the sense to go seek help from a therapist. Looking back, it was scary.
Not knowing what was happening, or how to aid her, I felt helpless. I can only imagine how she must have felt.
A panic attack involves feelings of intense fear and physical discomfort that peaks within a few minutes. Some people use the term “anxiety attack” interchangeably with panic attack, but I tend to think of them as completely different events.
An anxiety attack is more accurately defined as a period of very high anxiety, but without panic.
Many people experience a debilitating fear of future attacks. This fear causes us to be on edge. We might constantly scan our environment for potential triggers or even entirely avoid situations and places we associate with panic. Very often, this is how agoraphobia begins.
We also constantly scan our bodies for symptoms of anxiety and panic, a trait known as anxiety sensitivity. If these things sound familiar, you might have something called panic disorder.
Panic attacks often begin in late adolescence or early adulthood, but they won’t always result in a panic disorder. Treatment in the form of therapy, or in some cases, medication has been shown to be very beneficial and successful.
Panic attacks mostly occur without any evident triggers, which is why it is all the more important to know how to recognize them.
- A sudden and intense sense of fear. A panic attack can last anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes. The sense of panic, or the anxiety, however can last for hours after the attack.
- Increase in heart rate. This soon leads to palpitations. Chest pain may accompany. The pounding heart is our body’s way of preparing us for a fight-or-flight response against the non-existent threat.
- Sensation of smothering, shortness of breath. This can be accompanied by shaking or trembling, and excessive sweating.
- Dizziness. Hyperventilation may lead to us feeling lightheaded or dizzy. This further makes us feel trapped and scared.
- Chills and hot flashes. A fear of impending doom. Feeling detached from the world, or from oneself.
- During a panic attack it can also feel like we’re going crazy or we’re going to die.
It’s understandable that these things can cause a lot of fear for a lot of people. This post debunking 13 common panic attack myths explains why we never need to be afraid of panic attacks. They can’t harm us one bit.
The physical symptoms of a panic attack and a heart attack can be very similar, but they can be distinguished.
Chest pain is common in both. In case of panic attacks, the chest pain is usually sharp (as if someone is stabbing you) and lasts for a few seconds.
In case of heart attacks, the chest pain lasts for longer and can often spread from the chest to areas like the arms, shoulders, neck, back, jaw, teeth, or stomach.
If you want to know more about panic attacks and heart attacks, and their differences, this post on anxiety chest pain goes into great detail.