Imagine…your heart is pounding. You suddenly feel like you can’t breathe. You wonder if you are dying and feel like you are going CRAZY.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is what it feels like to have a panic attack.
A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause. Panic attacks can be very frightening. When panic attacks occur, you might think you’re losing control, having a heart attack or even dying.
What You Feel
A panic attack means you experience some of these following symptoms (from WebMD):
- Feel like you’re losing control or going crazy
- Pounding heart
- Trembling or shaking
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Chills or hot flashes
- An out-of-body sensation
- Like you’re choking
- A fear that you’re dying
- Tingling or numb hands, arms, feet, or legs
While extremely unpleasant, panic attacks are NOT life threatening.
As a clinician, I can see the anxiety become palpable as my clients describe this debilitating disorder to me in great detail. Panic disorder has a way of making someone live in terror of the next attack. You see the thing about people who suffer from panic disorder is they begin to fear their fear. A panic attack is an extreme form of fear that causes physical and physiological symptoms. But a panic attack is not physically or medically dangerous. You are not in ANY danger of dying when you suffer from a panic attack but in that moment you truly may think you are dying. It is THAT psychological painful.
Panic attacks can lead you to constrict your life out of fear of having an attack in a place where you perceive there to be NO escape. Unfortunately, when I work with people who suffer from panic disorder, I often see symptoms of agoraphobia present as well. I will see people refuse to drive, refuse to leave their house without a “safe” person with them (someone they can turn to for help if a panic attack arises), struggle with social situations out of fear of having an attack in front of people, refuse to be in crowded places such as malls and concerts, and be afraid of any activity that reminds them even remotely of their panic attacks.
This is no way to live.
Panic disorder is NOT a life sentence.
People who struggle with this disorder start to limit their worlds: being particular with where they will go and what they will do. They try to be as “safe” as humanly possible.
Vigorous exercise may become a no go because the rising heart rate reminds them of their last panic attack when their chest was POUNDING. Caffeine is treated like it is poison because of the jittery, sweaty, high blood pressure feeling it produces which brings about a flashback of their last panic attack. Going into a hot tub and starting to sweat? No way—I can pass out in here and drown, they may tell them self.
One’s thoughts become increasingly irrational with panic disorder.
Anything that produces symptoms similar to a panic attack (increased heart rate, sweating, shortness of breath) will be avoided at all cost. Driving on the highway where you can’t get off an exit for another THIRTY miles? NO WAY. I am not getting STUCK.
The thing is the fear of being stuck and or in a place of no escape is a form of “internal” claustrophobia~existing in one’s mind and not in the external world.
You see panic disorder and agoraphobia go hand-in-hand.
IF you suffer from panic attacks on the regular, you may begin to fear you have will have another attack at the worst possible moment. In the middle of a presentation at work, waiting on-line at the store, driving on a bridge, flying where there is no perceived escape, at a social gathering–embarrassing yourself in front of many with nowhere to hide….
These fears can be so powerful you can begin to plan your life around them—allowing your range of experiences to become smaller and smaller. Your world becomes limited.
What can you do if you suffer from panic attacks?
Consider seeking treatment immediately. This is not something you should struggle through on your own. Counseling can help you with coping skills, relaxation techniques, and help you become cognizant of how one’s thoughts can amp up our body’s fight/flight response.
You see a panic attack is a response to something we view as threatening–even if in actual there is NO REAL DANGER FACING US. We can be triggered by other people, certain places, or the mere thought of facing down our fear.
During a panic attack, our body’s alarm response is triggered even in the absence of real danger.
Remember, you can overcome your panic disorder. When we avoid panic or treat it like our enemy, it will in turn ONLY get stronger. Don’t run away from that which you fear–it will only strengthen it. Accepting you struggle with anxiety is the first step to becoming better.
Acceptance drops our resistance.
Be gentle and kind to yourself. Don’t judge and criticize yourself for panicking. This will only make your more susceptible to an attack. YOU ARE NOT WEAK.
This disorder is HIGHLY responsive to treatment. Taking care of your mental health should always be a top priority.
And remember…this too shall pass. What you resist will persist. Do not try to fight the feelings of anxiety and panic.
Breath through the thoughts and feelings.
Remember: 1) You are not going to die; 2) This is a panic attack and it WILL end — it will not go on forever; 3) Work to calm your baseline anxiety which will help reduce the severity and the duration of the panic attack — going to a quiet place, focusing on regulating your breathing, stating over and over again, even if you don’t believe it, “I will be okay, this too shall pace, I am safe.”
You WILL come out on the other side.
Below I share with you a TED talk from my fellow UDEL alum, Summer Beretsky, on the struggle of dealing with anxiety & panic disorder.
To schedule a counseling session with me (AND if you are a reader who lives in New Jersey):
Anew Counseling Services LLC
617 Oradell Avenue, Suite 3, Oradell, New Jersey, 07649