It can start with a racing heart, feeling weak or faint then move on to a sense of terror that is so crippling that you begin to feel chest pains and problems breathing. This is what a panic attack feels like, and it can strike in anyone at any time.
And while women are more likely than men to experience one (4.6 per cent of women versus 2.8 per cent of men), one doesn’t need to live with a panic disorder to have one, which can make the feeling of having a panic attack scarier if you don’t know you’re experiencing an attack.
As common as panic attacks are, many people do mistake panic attacks as being the same thing as anxiety attacks – which they are not, Dr. Patrick Smith, clinical psychologist and national CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), says.
“Anxiety is usually characterized by something that is related to some fixation and a worry about a particular outcome,” Smith explains. “A panic attack can sometimes appear to be a little bit more out of the blue. It can come on very suddenly. And while anxiety is kind of a slow build, a panic attack is often characterized by something that comes on quite suddenly and can last five to 10 minutes, but for the person who’s experiencing it, it can feel like it lasts a long time.”
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, panic attacks usually consist of at least four of the following symptoms: heart palpitations, sweating, trembling, shortness of breath, feelings of choking, chest pain, nausea, light-headedness and chills or heat sensations, among a list of others.
Causes and triggers of panic attacks can range from person to person. But a couple of common triggers are alcohol and drugs, particularly marijuana, Smith says.
But just because one experiences a panic attack, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have a panic disorder, Smith adds. It could be just a one —or a few — time thing. But if they do become more frequent, then there may be an underlying issue, possibly a panic disorder.
Those who do suffer from a panic disorder, though, do experience a range of symptoms that can have major implications on them socially, as well as their overall mental well-being. For example, it can cause problems at work or school, induce depression and anxiety disorders and increase one’s chance of abusing alcohol or other substances, the Mayo Clinic says.
In more extreme cases, Smith says, it may cause isolation and may even lead to agoraphobia (a fear and avoidance of places or situations).
The causes and risk factors of developing a panic disorder can be due to stressful or traumatic life events, having a family history of panic disorder or having other medical or psychiatric problems, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) says.
So what can people do if they feel a panic attack coming on? There are a few things, Smith says.
First, focusing on moderating your breathing is very important. Get that under control by taking really deep breaths – this will help slow down the breathing and help get you out of the panic attack on a physiological level.
Next, try finding someone you trust like a family member or friend, and be in their presence.
“Isolation can perpetuate the panic,” he says. “So being around friends and family, and having that connection, can really, really help.”
For the long term, the best thing one can do to help manage attacks is by engaging in 30 minutes of exercise a day, Smith adds.
“Physical exercise is a natural anxiety reliever,” Smith explains. “But also practice some relaxation techniques and other things that can help them be more mindful.”
Also avoid caffeine, alcohol and smoking cigarettes and marijuana, he adds.
Lastly, it’s important to never ignore the symptoms of a panic attack, Smith says. And while panic attacks themselves are not dangerous, the symptoms may mirror other ailments and what you’re experiencing may not actually be a panic attack, but rather be a sign of something else like a heart attack.
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