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And suddenly, fear takes hold of your body, and time loses all its meaning. Stuck in a period of discomfort and what feels like an eternity of pure panic. Has breathing ever felt this hard? What you might be experiencing is referred to as a panic attack, a sudden surge of intense fear or discomfort that can last from a few minutes up to several hours, often accompanied by physical symptoms like a racing heart, trembling, sweating, shortness of breath, nausea, and a feeling of intense dread or terror.
Experiencing a panic attack can be extremely frightening and distressing due to its unforeseeable nature. Some people might feel like they are going through a heart attack or a complete mental breakdown. It's also common to experience intense fear and dread when thinking about the possibility of having another panic attack. Regularly experiencing panic attacks can be a sign of a panic disorder. A panic disorder is an anxiety disorder characterized by sudden and repeated episodes of intense fear, but experiencing a panic attack does not necessarily indicate the development of a panic disorder (NIMH, 2022).
Panic attacks vs. Anxiety Attacks
The symptoms of panic attacks are somewhat similar to those of anxiety attacks, but there are slight differences. Both show similar physical symptoms, although people suffering from panic attacks tend to experience more intense physical reactions. An anxiety attack builds up gradually through worrying and apprehension and can last for a longer period, while panic attacks are characterized by a more sudden appearance with a shorter peak of a couple of minutes. Furthermore, panic attacks, compared to anxiety attacks, are a classification of the DSM-5 (5th version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illnesses), a reference book for professionals on mental health and brain-related conditions (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
Causes of a Panic Attack
There are different triggers for panic attacks, but the exact cause is still unknown. Some people might be more genetically prone to them, or they can be triggered by environmental factors such as major stress or life transitions (Goddard, 2017). Some researchers also believe it has to do with the “fight or flight response” being falsely triggered in your brain, either by being activated too often, too strongly, or a combination of both (Kim et al., 2012). There is also research conducted on chemical imbalances within the brain that are causing panic attacks (Martin et al., 2009).
What to do against Panic Attacks
Do not allow the fear of panic attacks to control you. Remember that this feeling will pass, and the symptoms are not a sign of anything dangerous happening to you. When you experience a panic attack, you might want to move to a quiet place where there are fewer external stimuli that might intensify your symptoms. Being in a quieter space creates a mental space for you to focus on different coping mechanisms to overcome your panic attack.
Due to the nature of panic attacks, your body might be in a heightened state, such as with increased breathing and heart rate. It’s helpful to use breathing exercises in these situations to reduce the physical symptoms of a panic attack. Try to slowly take a deep breath, hold it for a couple of seconds, and slowly breathe out for a few seconds. Repeat this until you feel calmer.
Try to get grounded. Maybe by shifting your attention to your surroundings, trying to notice what is around you, and naming the colors, shapes, sizes, and structures of the different objects you can spot. Due to the strong connection between smell and memories, you could carry a soothing smell with you that triggers happy or calm memories for you. It can be anything accessible you can carry with you on a daily basis, such as your favorite perfume, an essential oil, an herb, or a spice. Smelling something familiar can trigger an emotional response. The part of your brain processing smell is connected to the hippocampus and amygdala, brain parts that are responsible for consolidating long-term memories and processing emotional responses (Walsh, 2020).
During a panic attack, your flight or fight response is triggered, causing your body to build up energy. So, you might want to move your body to use up the excess energy in your muscles and the circulatory system. Try walking, running, or stretching to realign your body and mind.
Panic attacks can be triggered by something that a person sees or experiences in their life. Thus, it is important to identify and be aware of your triggers in order to avoid or minimize the chances of them reoccurring. Don’t be ashamed of having panic attacks; reach out to people you feel safe with and share your experience with them to get emotional support. If panic attacks are happening frequently and disrupting your daily life, you might want to reach out to a mental health professional and work with them.
By recognizing the signs of a panic attack starting and then using the coping techniques that work for you, it is possible to reduce their severity over time. Although experiencing panic attacks can be terrifying, you can find your personal ways of coping be it through movement or smell.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596
Goddard, A. W. (2017). The Neurobiology of Panic: A Chronic Stress Disorder. Chronic Stress, 1, 2470547017736038. https://doi.org/10.1177/2470547017736038
Kim, J. E., Dager, S. R., & Lyoo, I. K. (2012). The role of the amygdala in the pathophysiology of panic disorder: evidence from neuroimaging studies. Biology of Mood & Anxiety Disorders, 2, 20. https://doi.org/10.1186/2045-5380-2-20
Martin, E. I., Ressler, K. J., Binder, E., & Nemeroff, C. B. (2009). The Neurobiology of Anxiety Disorders: Brain Imaging, Genetics, and Psychoneuroendocrinology. Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 32(3), 549–575. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psc.2009.05.004
NIMH. (2022). Panic Disorder: When Fear Overwhelms. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/panic-disorder-when-fear-overwhelms
Walsh, C. (2020, February 27). How scent, emotion, and memory are intertwined — and exploited. Harvard Gazette. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2020/02/how-scent-emotion-and-memory-are-intertwined-and-exploited/
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