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Your Healthy Mind

Understanding panic attacks and how to stop having them

Posted by Dr. Peter Farvolden, Ph.D., C.Psych. on Sep 28, 2018 1:25:01 PM

A man bent over, clutching his chest while having a panic attack.

Experiencing a panic attack can be an alarming and frightening experience, and have a disruptive impact on quality of life.

Panic disorder is characterized by the repeated experience of sudden and very intense feelings of fear, often experienced as terror and a feeling of being trapped and needing to escape. Panic attacks often seem to strike without warning or “out of the blue.”

Signs of a panic attack

While panic attacks are a mental health concern, they have many physical symptoms. Symptoms may include:

  • Racing or pounding heart
  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling of being smothered
  • Faintness, weakness or dizziness
  • Tightness in chest
  • Feeling of being choked, tightness in the throat
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Feeling cold, hot or flushed
  • Sense of unreality or depersonalization
  • Fear of impending doom, loss of control

Because of these intense symptoms, people experiencing a panic attack often believe that they are going to die from a heart attack or stroke or that they are losing their mind.

Experiencing a panic attack

Panic attacks can happen at any time, even during sleep. People most often describe their attacks as having a sudden onset and peaking within ten minutes. However, others describe their attacks as building and lasting much longer or coming in waves.

People with panic disorder often can’t predict when an attack will happen. As a result, they often develop intense anxiety between episodes, as they worry about when and where their next panic attack will happen because it could be anytime or anywhere. They develop a “fear of fear”.

Repeated attacks and their effect

When people experience repeated, unexpected panic attacks, they start to expect them and begin to avoid places and situations in which they have experienced them. When people start to avoid activities to an extent that it causes significant distress and impairment in their social and occupational functioning, they have developed agoraphobia.

Panic attacks and panic disorder often occur along with other problems, including depression, substance use, and other types of anxiety problems. In addition, the symptoms can be very similar to those of a heart attack, stroke or other medical problem, so it is important to consult your family doctor to rule out a physical cause for your symptoms. After that, a proper and thorough differential diagnostic assessment by a psychiatrist or psychologist is the first step towards effective treatment.

Effective treatment is available

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is the most effective treatment for panic disorder, with or without agoraphobia. CBT is effective for 90% of people with panic disorder and early treatment can often stop the development of agoraphobia.

BEACON is CBT—digital therapy guided by a therapist dedicated to you, that you can complete anytime or anywhere you’re comfortable. If you have experienced a panic attack, are experiencing some of the symptoms we’ve described, BEACON may be part of the solution for you.

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Topics: Panic