To grasp what panic attacks are like, picture the following: as you are walking upstairs, you suddenly notice weird sensations in your body. Your heart begins racing and a dread fills your stomach. Your chest is rapidly tightening up. Breaths of air don’t seem to come quickly enough as a horrible fear takes over your brain: are you having a heart attack? Your feeling of panic becomes almost unbearable as you lay on the floor and try to keep it together. What is happening?
Minutes or hours later, the panic lessens again. But what had been a happy, normal day is now wrecked by your exhausting experience. At Wellness Path Therapy, this is the type of experience that many clients have reported before beginning therapy.
What is a panic attack?
You may not have needed that description to imagine a panic attack. Panic attacks are quite common, with over 1 out of 10 Americans experiencing one each year and even more panicking during their lifetime. Panic attacks look different from one person to the next. For some people, they may feel highly concerned about situations like driving, crowds, public transportation, or exercise. Others may focus on avoiding situations that they fear could trigger panic.
Panic attacks themselves involve the activation of our nervous systems, which include both physical sensations and scary thoughts. Common physical sensations may include racing heart, sweating, dizziness, tingling or numbness, nausea, and shortness of breath. However, you may not know that frightening thoughts are also part of our nervous system’s reaction to perceived danger. These scary thoughts often focus on physical sensations. For example, “what if this dizziness means I am having a stroke?” or “I’m going crazy, I know it!” Our bodies generally react to such scary thoughts with even more panic.
Panic attacks are different than panic disorder
Experiencing even a single attack can be overwhelming. So how do you know when panic is becoming a problem? The simplest answer is that if your panic is bothering you, you can talk with a professional to figure out what is happening. Our job is to help you with exactly these types of questions.
To better understand the impact panic attacks may be having on you, professionals distinguish between panic attacks and panic disorder. Among other differences, panic disorder occurs when your panic attacks keep recurring unexpectedly. You may find yourself worried about future panic attacks or changing your behavior to try to avoid them.
It is also important to rule out other medical, medication, or substance-related causes for panic attacks. For instance, someone may be experiencing panic attacks due to steroid medication, marijuana use, or as part of an emerging condition like diabetes. In these examples, your health professional can do a thorough assessment of the possible causes for your panic attacks and help you determine what types of support are most appropriate.
Panic can be treated
There is good news about panic: it is treatable! Research shows that not only do many people benefit from panic treatment, it is one of the mental health areas we are best at addressing. The leading treatment for panic is cognitive-behavioral therapy, which teaches you new skills for thinking about physical sensations. The treatment also helps you to ‘face your fears’ through exercises that intend to bring on sensations of panic attacks. It may seem counterintuitive, but we want you to approach rather than avoid panic. This process reteaches your brain that the physical sensations during panic aren’t truly dangerous. In other words, experience (through practice) is truly the best teacher! I am in awe of the way my clients bravely engage with this treatment despite how (literally) scary it is; it is wonderful to see their hard work paying off as they find relief and happiness.
I hope this post is useful for learning some basics about panic attacks and treatment. If you are interested in pursuing online therapy for panic, there is research suggesting it is effective. Please contact me for a free consultation and we can discuss whether counseling would be a good fit at this time.