What Is A Panic Attack?

Yes, they are real!
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Raj rushed to his doctor with complaints of breathlessness, pounding heart, discomfort in chest and dizziness. He was sweating a lot too. He felt almost paralysed with a feeling of fear and dread. It felt like he was having a heart attack. On checking the doctor told him that what he had experienced wasn’t a heart attack but a panic attack!

What Is A Panic Attack?

A panic attack is characterised by an abrupt or sudden onset of intense fear and anxiety along with physical symptoms such as increased heart rate, lightheadedness, shortness of breath with the thought and feeling that something bad is going to happen. Repeated panic attacks can lead to the diagnosis of panic disorder.

A panic attack generally lasts for less than 30 minutes with the peak at around 10 minutes.  It often occurs without any apparent reason (although there is always something that has led to it) and can happen anytime, at home, at work, while driving, in a party, anywhere.

It is triggered often due to a feeling of being in a situation where you feel you are threatened in some way, so the body and mind respond with fight-or-flight to deal with the situation. Sometimes the trigger is subtle, such as a sensation in the body or even words.

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A panic attack is different from anxiety. Anxiety is a result of worrying and overthinking about the future, expecting that something bad will happen. It builds gradually. Anxiety is related to something that is maybe perceived as a threat. Panic attacks, on the other hand, can be severe and can create an emotional havoc. The fear of having another panic attack by itself becomes a stressor.

Several people, who come to me for therapy, report that the fear of getting another panic attack is one of their topmost anxieties and they go to great lengths to avoid getting one. And since the panic attack can occur literally out of the blue, it creates a lot of anticipatory anxiety and often leads to avoidance of situations and places that are a risk of leading to an attack.

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Panic Attack Symptoms Include:

  • Shortness of breath or hyperventilation

  • Heart palpitations or a racing heart

  • Chest pain or discomfort

  • Trembling or shaking

  • A choking feeling

  • Feeling unreal or detached from your surroundings

  • Sweating

  • Nausea or upset stomach

  • Feeling dizzy, light-headed or faint

  • Numbness or tingling sensations

  • Hot or cold flashes

  • Fear of dying, losing control or going crazy

One of my patients had been prone to anxiety since his school days. Early experiences in school such as being bullied, pressures of performance etc, had been overwhelming for him. He felt judged all the time and would get into negative thinking spirals very easily. He came from a family of worriers and had grown up with the constant subtle message given to him that the world is a dangerous place, that he will get engulfed in the competition and that people will take advantage of him. He would feel very self-conscious of himself and had low self-esteem. He would be very anxious about performing at his workplace. Once, when he had to make a presentation, he froze and the anxiety led to a panic attack. It was very scary for him and the fear of getting more panic attacks and avoiding them became the sole purpose of his life. He started avoiding social situations and became over-vigilant. With the help of therapy as well as medication to help him cope with anxiety, he has been on the path of recovery and is able to manage his life well. He has benefited greatly from therapy and specially with practicing mindfulness.

About The Author: Neha Patel is a clinical psychologist and Arts-Based Therapist. She has a centre called Sharnam Therapy and Healing in Mumbai. She also runs a group therapy program called ‘Aashayein’ for people undergoing depression and anxiety.

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