An estimated 2.7 percent of American adults experience a panic attack in a given year, and nearly 5 percent of people experience panic attacks in their lives. Panic attacks are more common than we previously thought, and may still be underdiagnosed in men. Unlike generalized anxiety or a case of phobia, a panic attack is an acute episode of physical and psychological distress, usually with no trigger or perceivable danger whatsoever. Panic attacks, or a panic attack onset, mimic the body’s fight-or-flight response in extreme situations, causing a rush of adrenaline, spiked heart rate, difficulty breathing, and other symptoms.
Isolated panic attacks may be caused by excessive chronic stress, past trauma, or recent grief – many people experience one or two panic attacks at certain points in life, and never again. However, panic attacks can also become a debilitating and recurring problem for some people. In these cases, their panic attacks become a panic disorder.
While panic attacks are not usually life-threatening, they can be seriously impairing, especially if they become a regular occurrence. Thankfully, panic disorder is very treatable, meaning most people respond well to first-line treatments for this condition.
What is a Panic Attack?
A panic attack is an acute episode of intense fear, causing emotional as well as physical discomfort. A panic attack must be accompanied by a physical reaction. Most people describe panic attacks as feeling like a heart attack, and you may feel imminent, even though panic attacks themselves cannot cause death.
Panic attacks may still be underdiagnosed in men, while some people are more likely to be diagnosed with a panic attack even when they’re actually experiencing a heart attack. Understanding and differentiating between panic attacks and physical emergencies is important, and there is a need for a greater understanding of how physical symptoms of some conditions – particularly cardiac arrest – differ between men and women, for example.
Panic Attacks are Mainly Psychological Condition
The main takeaway is that a panic attack is largely a psychological condition with physical symptoms caused by a rush of chemicals secreted by your adrenal gland. You feel in danger, like an inevitable and impending doom is upon you, and your chest tightens as it gets harder to breathe. Your hands may feel numb, you begin to sweat profusely, and you may experience chills or dizziness.
Recognizing a Panic Attack Onset
A panic attack onset can be anything from a sudden spike in heart rate, followed by shortness of breath, numbness, and sweating, to chills or hot flashes and an emotional response of intense fear to nothing.
Another important takeaway is that panic attacks are not linked directly to identifiable stressors or causes. It isn’t a panic attack if you suddenly clench up and feel scared after narrowly avoiding a car accident or experiencing a trigger for your phobia. Panic attacks come at you “out of the blue.”
Physical Symptoms of a Panic Attack Onset
A panic attack onset can feature a multitude of physical symptoms, in addition to psychological symptoms like intense fear, overwhelming feeling of dread, or a sense of impending doom. These physical symptoms can include:
- Spiked heart rate
- Difficulty breathing
- Feeling choked up
- Tightness around the chest
- Feeling lightheaded or dizzy
- Hot flashes or sudden chills
- Abdominal pain
- Numbness in the hands
- Feeling “distant” from reality, dissociating with the present
Most of these symptoms are a result of the hormones your body releases in response to a panic attack, especially adrenaline. Headaches and dizziness can occur as you begin to hyperventilate, increasing the carbon dioxide in your bloodstream, and reducing your oxygen levels.
This can also account for numbness in the hands, alongside circulatory problems. Anxiety symptoms, including intense fear, often correlate with stomach cramps and abdominal pains. Chills or hot flashes are another circulatory symptom caused by a rapid heart rate and hyperventilation.
Differentiating Panic Attacks from Anxiety
Anxiety disorders span an expansive list of different mental health conditions that affect more people than any other type of mental disorder. They can include obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, phobias, and in some definitions, even stress disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder.
Defining Anxiety from a Clinical Perspective
In a clinical or psychiatric context, anxiety is usually understood as an umbrella term for fear-based irrational or intrusive emotions. These are unwanted feelings of fear, distress, or discomfort towards a situation or stimuli which does not warrant this level of fear or discomfort.
While feelings like fear are entirely subjective, and it isn’t up to anyone to determine whether feeling a certain way is right or not, a key part of identifying an anxiety disorder is debilitation and impairment. If your feelings of fear and discomfort in tight spaces are making it impossible for you to use the metro or an elevator for years on end, you may be suffering from a serious phobia rather than a rational fear, even if that fear is informed by a prior traumatic experience, such as a derailed train or a failed elevator.
Anxiety symptoms can also occur for no discernable reason, like panic attacks. A person with generalized anxiety may feel anxious, sad, or full of dread even in times of relative peace and quiet. For some people, internalized stress can grow to a point where it results in a constant state of alertness and hypervigilance.
But panic attacks are different. Unlike anxiety symptoms, which can include largely mental discomfort, panic attacks are specifically named for the feeling of inescapable panic that they create, and their accompanying physical symptoms.
What is Panic Disorder?
Whereas a panic attack may describe something that only occurs once in a person’s lifetime for most people who experience them, panic disorder is characterized by recurring panic attacks within a period of time, such as several per month, or recurring panic attacks over the course of an entire year.
Most of the time, panic disorders can be traced back to an event or life change that might be affecting a person’s mental health, such as a recent separation, the loss of a loved one, losing a job, or dropping out of school. However, these triggers aren’t necessarily the cause of the disorder – most of the time, panic disorder is caused by internal factors, such as genetics. A certain stress threshold may need to be reached before the onset of the disorder begins.
In essence, panic disorder alters the way a person perceives stimuli, to the point where their mind and body can go into overdrive – as though they were being attacked or losing their life – despite the lack of any clear danger around them.
How is a Panic Attack Treated?
If a patient with a panic attack seeks emergency care, they will be admitted to a hospital or urgent care facility and given a thorough physical examination to rule out physical causes, such as arrhythmia or cardiac arrest. If their panic is truly purely psychological, they may be referred to psychiatric treatment – which, in the case of a panic disorder, may involve one-on-one therapy and selective use of certain medications, including antidepressants.
Get Panic Disorder Treatment in Malibu
Even if you are not diagnosed with a panic disorder, seeing a therapist may help you better understand what happened, and help you avoid another panic attack onset in the future through better stress management.