Understanding Panic Attacks

By: Beth Moore  M,Ed, RP

Anyone who has had a panic attack never wants to experience it again.  The physical symptoms can be extremely frightening, and people often report fearing that they are dying or having a heart attack during panic. Symptoms of panic or anxiety attacks can include: heart palpitations, chest pain, sweating, nausea, dizziness, light-headedness, hyperventilation, difficulty moving, derealisation, and tunnel vision, among others.  Additionally, almost everyone who has had a panic attack feels that it came on suddenly and without warning.  If you experience panic attacks or have in the past here are some key things to remember about them:

  • Panic attacks are not dangerous or life threatening. It is important to first identify with a doctor that what you experienced was a panic attack and not a different medical condition.  However, once identified, panic attacks are harmless, though extremely unpleasant and distressing.
  • A panic attack is an intense reaction from your sympathetic nervous system; in other words, your body is in extreme fight or flight mode. Essentially, it is the highest level of anxiety you and your body can experience.
  • A panic attack will not, and cannot, last forever. Once you are experiencing that level of anxiety, your body can only maintain it on average, for about 20 minutes.  Know that whatever awful symptoms you’re experiencing at the time, they will end.
  • Panic happens when we focus on, and misinterpret our physiological symptoms of anxiety as dangerous. Additionally, when we focus on a physiological response (swallowing, heart beat, blinking), it deregulates. This means when I turn my attention to my heartbeat for some amount of time, eventually my heart rate will quicken merely from my attention on it. This misinterpretation and focus is often what pushes anxiety from high to panic.

Knowing this information about panic is a great first step!  Stay tuned for another blog post about panic to help you cope.