Panic attacks are a common indicator among patients with an anxiety disorder. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIH), these attacks manifest even in situations that aren’t triggered by a real danger.1 Panic attacks often make a person think that he or she not only is losing control, but is also having a heart attack or dying.2
No one can predict when symptoms like these will happen since they can strike at any time.3 The attacks tend to begin suddenly and peak quickly within 10 minutes or less,4 and may prompt the patient to feel tired.5 However, it’s said that a weak panic attack may last longer. There’s a concept called the “limited symptom panic attack,” wherein attacks with three or less symptoms can last from a few minutes to several hours.6
What Causes a Panic Attack?
Research has shown that these factors may play a role in triggering panic attacks:7
• History of physical or sexual abuse
• Tendency of the body to go into “fight or flight mode,” wherein breathing quickens once your body tries to inhale more oxygen. Your body may also release hormones like adrenaline that cause rapid heartbeat and muscle tension9
• Illnesses like asthma, heart disease, hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid gland) and hypoglycemia (low blood sugar levels)10,11
Signs You Are Already Experiencing a Panic Attack
Apart from disrupting the emotions of a patient, panic attacks also manifest via a combination of these physical symptoms:12
Shortness of breath
Pounding, rapid heartbeat
Chest pain or discomfort
Trembling or shaking
Feeling unreal or detached from surroundings
Nausea or upset stomach
Dizziness or feeling faint
Numbness or tingling sensations
Chills or hot flashes
Fear of dying or going crazy
How to Relieve a Panic Attack
Although panic attacks can be debilitating, this doesn’t mean that you are automatically helpless against them. Try these techniques to help resolve a panic attack:13
• Focus: Pick out a nearby item from the area you’re currently in, and focus on it intently to steer your concentration away from the attack. This method assists with limiting focus on attack-inducing stimuli, ultimately decreasing panic attack symptoms.
• Release muscle tension: Doing so may reduce your overall tension and stress levels, both of which may contribute to worsen panic attacks. While taking a deep breath, tighten your muscles, hold for a few seconds and then breathe out to release the tension. Do this technique on one muscle group at a time as you move upward through your body.14
• Practice slow and deep breathing: Breathing quickly can aggravate feelings of panic and anxiety. In reverse, slow and deep breaths may help counteract feelings of fear and anxiety during an attack. The U.K.’s NHS suggests breathing in slowly, deeply and gently through your nose first, then breathing out in the same manner via the mouth. You may also try counting from one to five when breathing in and out, and close your eyes while breathing, too.15
• Visualize creatively: It’s most likely that negative thoughts will take over your mind during an anxiety attack. Focus on positive thoughts or images instead so you may feel more relaxed and calm. Conceptualize a place or situation that evokes feelings of relaxation, calmness and peace, and pay attention to this intently.
• Avoid “resisting” the attack: Fighting off a panic attack may actually worsen feelings of anxiety and panic. Instead, try to reassure yourself that your life is not at risk or you won’t get hurt, no matter how embarrassing or difficult the situation may be. Moreover, focus on the fact that the attack will be over soon.16
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America highlights that when you accept the fact that you’re having a panic attack, you may allow yourself to “desensitize” the body against usual indicators. This allows you to be more aware that you have power over the attack or the feelings you may experience. In time, your body may not even respond to the said indicators because you have trained your mind and body to “adapt” to the situation.17
While recovery from a panic attack may be possible if you follow some of these techniques, this does not mean that you shouldn’t consult a physician or mental health professional. Frequent panic attacks can be a sign of an anxiety disorder called panic disorder that, if left untreated, could severely impact your quality of life.