A sudden and terrifying surge of fear can come out of nowhere. The body responds with a range of responses. Your heart beats rapidly, you break out in a sweat, and you feel weak, faint, or dizzy. Your breathing changes and your chest hurts. You feel like you're spinning out of control. All of your senses are heightened and you feel a deep and impending sense of doom. You're not sure why, but you think you might be about to die. Is it a heart attack?
This is what it feels like to have a panic attack. What many people don't realize is that a panic attack is very much a physical experience. It can sometimes occur for no identifiable reason. In other situations, a known trigger can bring on panic. However, even when we can identify the trigger, the experience is no less terrifying or distressing.
Panic attacks can happen only once or they can become a reoccurring pattern. If a panic attack happens only once, this is not panic disorder, although the person may have an anxiety disorder. If panic attacks continue, you may have panic disorder.
There are certain common situations that can trigger panic attacks such as intense worry over finances, conflict, or concern over a health issue. Certain medications or too much caffeine or other stimulants can also trigger a panic attack. Even experiencing an internal symptom such as feeling hot or flushed can bring on the sensation that something is wrong in the body and cause a panic attack. Unfortunately, even the fear of having a panic attack can trigger another panic attack.
Understandably, panic attacks are very upsetting and after the attack passes, the person is left feeling exhausted and overwhelmed. Most people who have experienced a panic attack are highly motivated to avoid getting into a situation where another one could be triggered.
If you have suffered a panic attack you would likely go out of your way to avoid having another one. If you have a fear of feeling trapped in a closed space, you may decide it's better to avoid traveling on the subway. If crowds make you feel nervous you may begin to avoid them This is not a good situation as the more you allow the panic disorder to guide where you go and what you do, the less control you have over your life. Over time you may become isolated and restricted. This can lead to an escalation of mental health problems such as depression and more anxiety.
Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) is a known effective approach for panic attacks and general anxiety. CBT that is specifically focused on panic attacks is helpful because it allows you to identify and restructure negative thinking patterns. Part of the treatment for panic is to educate you on what is actually happening in the body during an attack. This helps to calm, reassure, and ultimately control your own mental response to the physical sensations.
In therapy, we work to understand how thoughts lead to anxiety. When we learn to adjust our thinking and adopt healthier and ultimately more realistic beliefs and interpretations of reality, we feel more secure and in control.
CBT brings relief from anxiety almost immediately. People begin to experience improvement after just a few sessions. If you have deeper underlying issues that trigger fear and anxiety due to past trauma, ongoing talk therapy with CBT can bring healing. Therapy for panic and anxiety will give you the coping skills you need that can bring about a substantial change in your quality of life.
Again, if you have experienced a panic attack, it is important not to allow yourself to alter your life in order to avoid triggering another one. Avoidance of potential triggers could lead to great restrictions on your life and rather than making you feel more secure, you can end up becoming more and more cautious as time goes on. When we indulge our fears without checking them, they can begin to take over our lives. It is important to seek help if you are considering adjusting your routine or if you live in fear of having another attack. Ongoing avoidance of triggering situations can lead to further mental health problems such as agoraphobia and depression.
About the author: Caryn Hess LPC is a therapist in Overland Park and the Greater Kansas City area, providing therapy to adults of all ages, backgrounds, and cultures.
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