What is a panic attack?
A panic attack involves a sudden and intense surge of fear that causes a person to feel like they are in danger. Panic attacks are typically brief, lasting less than ten minutes. However, the emotional effect of an attack can endure for much longer.
Symptoms of a panic attack include:
- Racing heart
- Shortness of breath
- Dizziness or faintness
- Chest pain
- Feelings of detachment
- Feeling a loss of control
- Fear of dying or ‘going crazy’
- Tingling or numbness in fingers
The fight or flight response is a physiological response that prepares our body to fight or run away from a threat. Although this response evolved to occur in response to physical threats in our environment, our body can also trigger this response in reaction to threats existing within our mind.
The bodily changes that occur during a panic attack are intended to prepare us to deal with this perceived threat, however, are experienced as frightening when they seem to occur out of nowhere or are not well understood.
The fear that a person experiences in response to their fight or flight reaction intensifies the body’s sense of threat. This can result in a cycle of anxiety, whereby an initial feeling of anxiety quickly escalates as a person fears for their wellbeing.
Using knowledge to combat panic
A critical step in overcoming panic attacks involves dispelling common misunderstandings.
If you are worried about panic attacks, the following facts from the University of Saskatchewan are important to keep in mind.
1. Panic attacks are not dangerous
Panic is a completely natural physiological response that occurs out of context. Panic can be understood as “the right response at the wrong time”.
2. Panic attacks are not hazardous to your heart
During a panic attack, an electrocardiogram shows that there are no abnormalities in heart rhythm – only rapid heart rate. Rapid heart rate during panic does not damage the heart.
3. Panic attacks always end
Panic is caused by a sudden rush of adrenalin. Much of the adrenalin will be reabsorbed by your body in about 3-5 minutes, at which point you will feel better.
4. There is no association between panic and psychosis
No one has ever ‘gone crazy’ from a panic attack. Mental disorders such as schizophrenia or psychosis develop progressively over a period of years and do not arise from panic.
5. Panic attacks will not cause you to suffocate
Your brain has a built-in reflex mechanism that will force breathing if you are not getting enough oxygen.
6. You cannot faint during a panic attack
During panic, your heart pumps harder to increase circulation. Your blood pressure rises. When people pass out, their blood pressure has fallen.
How do I tell the difference between a panic attack and a heart attack?
Although panic attacks are not hazardous to the heart, when a person experiences panic, they often worry about having a heart attack. Understanding the difference between heart and panic attacks can help alleviate this worry.
Panic attacks and heart attacks differ in the following ways:
- Chest pain during a panic attack is usually sharp and located primarily in the middle of the chest. During a heart attack, chest pain may be experienced as a squeezing sensation, and can extend from the chest towards the shoulders, arm, and jaw.
- Panic attacks typically end within ten minutes, and occasionally, can extend up to thirty minutes. Heart attacks last longer and increase in intensity as time extends.
Treatment at Open Sky Psychology
According to BeyondBlue, up to 40 percent of the population will experience a panic attack at some stage during their life. Approximately 5 percent of the population will experience problems with recurrent panic attacks. This group frequently benefits from psychological treatment, which has been scientifically shown to reduce panic attacks and increase control over anxiety.
If you are affected by panic attacks or anxiety and are interested in seeing a psychologist, you can contact us at Open Sky Psychology on the number above.
Mathew Marchant is a Clinical Psychologist at Open Sky Psychology. For an appointment with Mathew or one of our other practitioners, visit the Our Team page or call 1300 296 641.