Do you ever get this feeling out of the blue that the world is crashing and burning around you? One moment you are alright, going about your day, and then the next your heart is pounding, you feel like you’re choking, your vision is starting to cloud, and the fear that you are going to die begins to cross your mind. If this sensation sounds familiar, you may be suffering from a panic disorder.
Whether you’ve had a panic disorder for a long time or it is something that has developed recently, having panic attacks can be a terrifying experience. It is common for people who have panic attacks to be extremely anxious about when the next one will occur and whether or not there is anything they can do to prevent them. Panic attacks can be painful, scary, and get in the way of day-to-day life. If you have a panic disorder, do not blame yourself for being “weak” or “overly sensitive.” It is not your fault — you have a medical condition.
If you or someone you love has a panic disorder, it’s important to know you’re not alone. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, an annual average of 6.2% of people 18 and older living in Kentucky suffered from a serious mental illness from 2017 to 2019.
If you are afraid you might have a panic disorder, but you’re not sure, you are in the right place. Doing this kind of research is a great first step to understanding your own mental health and finding treatment that is right for you. As well as knowing what to do when someone is having a panic attack.
The fundamental, scientific causes of panic attacks are still not very well understood at this time. However, some evidence suggests that major life events can cause panic disorders. Other factors that may contribute to the development of a panic disorder include a combination of genetics (inborn traits passed down from generation to generation), trauma, environmental factors, and brain development or function. Sometimes people develop panic disorders leading up to or following major changes in their life, or when they feel they have lost control of their life.
There are things that put people at a greater risk than average of developing a panic disorder. For example, women are almost twice as likely as men to develop panic disorders. Severe childhood trauma, such as sexual or physical abuse, also puts you at a much higher risk of developing a panic disorder.
People with a history of mental illness or substance misuse are at a higher than average risk of developing a panic disorder. Other things that put you at risk of developing a panic disorder include major stress and a family history of panic disorders. Panic disorders can occur in the children of people who suffer from panic disorders even if they are not biologically related, but the children regularly witness their parents having panic attacks while growing up.
Now let’s take a look at seven of the most common symptoms of a panic disorder.
Panic attacks often begin with an intense feeling of terror. This may be triggered by something that happens, or by something you see, hear, or smell that you associate with a traumatic event from your life. It may also be in relation to a phobia (extreme, irrational fear) that you have. Having panic attacks that are triggered by something specific may also lead to you developing a phobia of something specific if you did not have a phobia of it already.
For example, if you have been in a bad car accident, you might have a panic attack when you get in a car. However, it can be something less obvious than that, like the smell of a perfume you were wearing or the sound of a song that was playing during a traumatic event.
People often describe feeling a “loss of control” when they have a panic attack or a fear that they are going to lose control. Panic attacks can come on very suddenly. You may feel like panic attacks happen against your will, and no matter how hard you try to fight against it, your body has to ride out the panic attack. This feeling can make panic attacks worse and much more frightening as you may feel trapped inside your own body.
If you have had a panic attack before, you likely have had difficulty breathing while in the throes of an attack. You may have had a feeling like you were choking on nothing or a sensation of being smothered. When you have a panic attack, your body feels like it is in immediate danger, and you often hyperventilate out of fear. These shallow breaths typically do not get enough oxygen to your brain and leave you feeling like you cannot breathe.
Along with difficulty breathing, you likely have dizziness or lightheadedness. This is connected to your breathing as well. When your brain doesn’t get enough oxygen, it cannot function properly, and a brain without proper oxygen cannot keep you conscious for very long. Before losing consciousness, your brain’s reaction to a lack of oxygen is usually an intense feeling of dizziness or lightheadedness.
The scary part about feeling lightheaded and dizzy is that it often makes you feel even more panicky, which ends up making the symptoms of panic disorder worse and not better.
As you begin to panic, your heart will beat rapidly, and as previously discussed, you will have difficulty breathing. In addition to a lack of oxygen in your brain, which will cause lightheadedness and dizziness, there will also be a lack of oxygen in your blood because you’re not getting enough oxygen through your breathing overall. A lack of oxygen in your blood will make your body feel numb and tingly. It starts with your extremities, like your fingers and toes, and slowly moves into the core of your body.
When you panic, you also tend to start shaking or trembling. This is a very common response to fear. You are nervous, your fight or flight instincts have probably been activated, and your body is pumping you full of adrenaline. This will make your body tremble and shake with excess energy.
Many of the above-mentioned symptoms of a panic attack all happen together. In addition, panic attack symptoms usually come on very quickly and often peak within minutes. Because of all of these sensations happening to you all at once, you may begin to feel like you are going to die. However, panic attacks are not deadly unless you have an underlying heart condition. Panic attacks alone do not cause a heart attack. While symptoms of panic attacks do sometimes require a trip to the emergency room or sedation, you will not die from a panic attack.
If you are suffering from a panic disorder, it is not very likely that you can entirely prevent panic attacks on your own. However, some things can help, like getting regular exercise, which helps with anxiety and limiting the amount of stress in your life. It is also important to eat well and eat regularly, as your anxiety may increase alongside hunger. It can also be helpful to limit your intake of things like alcohol and caffeine.
You should not try medications or herbal remedies without first consulting a doctor. The best way to prevent panic attacks is to receive treatment for your panic disorder. Treatment can help you manage your triggers and the symptoms of your panic disorder. While a panic disorder can be a lifelong problem, most people who receive treatment and follow their doctor’s advice improve and are able to lessen their symptoms over time.
SUN Behavioral Health, located in Erlanger, Kentucky (a suburb of Cincinnati), offers top-of-the-line panic disorder treatment. Here at SUN, we understand that every patient is an individual with unique experiences and needs. That’s why we ensure that every patient’s treatment is individualized for them. However, most people begin treatment with some combination of therapy and medication.
There are two different kinds of therapy that are commonly used to treat panic disorders here at SUN Behavioral Kentucky. The first kind of therapy is cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT. CBT focuses on understanding thought and behavior patterns that lead to panic attacks. The goal is to limit the thoughts and behaviors that trigger or commonly occur leading up to panic attacks.
The other type of therapy we sometimes use to treat panic attacks is exposure therapy. Exposure therapy is the process of triggering panic attacks in a safe, controlled environment. This allows you to get used to the physical sensations associated with a panic attack symptom in an environment where you are in no real danger.
Medication is not right for everyone. But medication can very often be a part of effectively managing and treating a panic disorder. While it will not necessarily help heal the cause of your panic attacks, or make you less afraid of the things that trigger your panic attacks, medication can help you manage the physical symptoms that panic attacks cause.
Common medications we use to treat panic disorders include:
Due to unique chemical reactions to medications, your care team may try drugs individually or in combination until the most effective regimen is found. Some combinations include things like citalopram and clonazepam. It is important to remember, medication is most effective when used alongside therapy.
Have you or someone you love had the above-mentioned symptoms of a panic attack? If you believe you or someone in your life is suffering from a panic disorder, now is the time to get help. Call at (859) 429-5188 to get started.
What are the five characteristics of panic disorder?
There are more than just five characteristics of a panic disorder, and panic disorders may look different for different people. People who have a panic disorder have panic attacks. Five common characteristics of a panic attack include: feeling a sense of impending doom like you’re going to die, feeling intense terror, fear of losing control, dizziness or lightheadedness, and tingling and numbness.
What are the three basic types of panic attacks?
The three types of panic attacks are usually considered to be major panic attacks, where your symptoms are severe and you may need a visit to the ER; minor panic attacks, where your symptoms are less severe and you may be able to identify that it is a panic attack that will go away; and then chronic panic attacks, which are more moderate but last all day.
What are the main causes of panic attacks?
Panic attacks can be caused by a combination of genetics (inborn traits passed down from generation to generation), trauma, environmental factors, and brain function. People who have other mental illnesses or a history of substance use may be at higher risk of developing a panic disorder than people who don’t have those experiences.
How do I know if I have anxiety or panic disorder?
If you have the symptoms of a panic attack and they have recurred, or you have had serious fear of them returning for at least one month, you may have a panic disorder. However, the diagnosis must be made by a medical professional.