Am I Going to Die? Panic Attacks
What is a Panic Attack?
Almost anyone who has experienced a panic attack has either thought they were dying, going crazy or both. Most Panic attack sufferers often go to the ER, with a firm believe that something has gone terribly wrong with their body or mind. Recognizing symptoms of a panic attack can save you a lengthy stay at the ER , cut your down time and prevent one altogether.
What exactly causes a panic attack is unclear, however certain things can act as triggers. Stressful situations, life events, drugs such as marijuana often precede a panic attack. Once a panic attack has occurred, the physical sensations and fearful thoughts add fuel to the problem. The symptoms of a panic attack are usually what frightens most people and creates a cycle of fear that can be challenging to snap out of. One thing is for certain, it is not easy to think oneself out a panic attack that is already in progress.
The symptoms of a panic attack are quite obvious and intense. Although harmless in short term, if persistent, they can greatly diminish the quality of life. Chronic anxiety can lead depression or interfere with a person's ability to carry on day to day activities. Here are some of the symptoms of a panic attack:
- Increased heartbeat
- Pacing thoughts and obsessive self analysis
- Fear of dying or going insane
- Hyperventilation and difficulty breathing
- Tightening of neck muscles, dry mouth and trouble swallowing
- Dizziness and feeling faint
- Tunnel vision - blurred vision on objects not in direct line of sight
- Derealization- Sense of loosing touch with reality/ sense of something missing, dream-like feeling, mental fog
- Confusion and trouble speaking
- Obsession with philosophical concepts e.g. what are are thoughts, why are things as they appear, etc
- Sense of impeding doom e.g. A feeling that something terrible is about to happen
- Hyper-alertness e.g. sensitivity to loud noises and objects moving in the periphery
- Formication: feeling on crawling under he skin
- Obsessive behavior e.g. googling of symptoms or diseases
Most people experiencing a panic attack become restless and attempt to do too much to alleviate the symptoms. This only results in more stress to the body, enhancing the symptoms.
As stated earlier, the symptoms of the panic attack are what frightens most people. It may sound confusing at first, but a person that has suffered a panic attack would know exactly what that means.
A panic attack feels sudden but it usually is not. Initially, stressful situations, life events or drugs often trigger a panic reaction. Real danger can also cause a panic reaction but in that case it is useful as person we will either run away or fight back.
In a panic attack, we become aware of the physical sensations(rapid heart beat, difficulty breathing, confusion,etc), this is leads to frightening thoughts (something dangerous is happening) and then we panic or act hysterical.
The source of danger appears to be from within the body, and we automatically scan through body for anything unusual. At the heightened state of alertness, a person will focus on area of the body where they suspect a problem. Here is an example of what a person may feel when concentrating on one area:
Region of Body
Pounding, flattering, feeling of a fading heartbeat
Nausea, upset stomach
Pulsating at top, back and temperol, dizziness/feeling faint
feeling of something crawling underneath(formication), itchiness
Thoughts of dying, loosing control, going mad/insane, incurable illness, trouble speaking, confusion, derealization
These are exactly the symptoms of being extremely afraid. Think of a situation where you are in the dark, and you heard a scary sound or saw something strange. We often ignore them in the case of an actual threat but in a panic attack, we focus on them, making them the appear strange and frightening.
The obsessive awareness of the physical symptoms, causes frightening thoughts, leading to more panicking. Eventually, the initial trigger becomes irrelevant and the person feels trapped in a loop of frightening thoughts, physical sensations and panicking: hence the feeling of going insane. Understanding that is normal in state of panic is critical in breaking away from the loop of panics following the initial panic attack.
Managing a Panic Attack
For self reassurance, it is important to understand the following:
- You are not dying, the heart will not stop, and you will not pass out.
- You are not going insane.
- Once the body goes back to its normal state, all the symptoms will do away.
Running to the ER, shouting for help or running in circles will not help. Googling and comparing symptoms of serious illnesses is frightening for anyone, and worse while going through a panic attack. Instead, here are some solutions:
i) Understand the symptoms:
All the symptoms are normal, harmless, and will subside over time.
ii) Do not react (act hysterically) to the symptoms:
If we consciously react to the sensations, we starting forming a habit of doing so. If we do not, they simply become less and less relevant.
Analogy: Think of a child, who is scared of scary hand puppet, if they run away every time they see one, they can indeed develop to adulthood with the same fear.
Using other mental faculties such as intelligence/reasoning is important in building useful behavior and distinguishing real threat from fake ones. Reacting to the symptoms of a panic attack trains the body to assume there is an actual threat within the body.
Instead of focusing on physical sensations or frightening thoughts, one may decide to concentrate on anything else. Although difficult initially, it becomes easier with time. Recognize the feeling as harmless and go around your business: watch TV, read a book, talk to a friend,etc
iv) Deep breaths
Taking deep breaths is useful in reducing chest pains and hyperventilation, but difficult to do when panicking. Distraction works just as well.
iv) Long term
It is also beneficial to talk to a counselor or psychologist for useful tips. Experienced professionals can give deeper insight or solutions and other management tools.
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