Can I really die from a panic attack? Why does it occur? How can I get better? Panic disorder is a specific mental health diagnosis with some specific symptoms. Here are five things you need to know about panic attacks and panic disorder:
1. What causes Panic Disorder?
Research in anxiety disorders is robust and has identified that a part of the brain called the amygdala is involved along with a process called fear condition. Fear conditioning has been studied in many species from mollusks to humans and is a behavioral processes by which an animal learns to respond to a stimulus with a physiological fear response. Anxiety disorders (such as panic disorder) operate on these principles.
2. What are major signs of panic disorder?
- Brief, extremely sudden, and repeated onset of physiological and emotional fear also known as a panic attack.
- Physical symptoms such as sweating, breathing difficulties, weakness, dizziness, nausea, hot or cold chills, tingling in extremities, stomach pain, chest pain and/or pounding or racing heart.
- Overwhelming sense of fear, worry and preoccupation about when the next panic attack will occur.
- Persistent and strong avoidance of places where panic attacks have occurred in the past.
- Feeling of being “out of control” during a panic attack.
- Strong sensitivity to physiological changes like heart rate, breathing, perspiration, nausea, and other sensations even when these are completely expected (e.g. during exercise, walking up stairs, etc).
3. What is a panic attack?
Panic attacks are brief periods (approximately less than 20 minutes) of extreme physiological anxiety arousal where a variety of symptoms occurs from difficulty breathing to a pounding/racing heart. However, what can set apart a panic attack from just a moment of high anxiety is the strong emotional fear that one will die from the physical symptoms or something catastrophic will happen as a result of the symptoms. Some people will experience several panic attacks throughout a day, which makes it seem like it lasts for several hours.
4. How can I help someone with panic disorder?
An extremely important first step is assisting your loved one or friend to see a psychologist or licensed mental health provider to get an evaluation or diagnosis. Your primary care provider can be helpful in ruling out certain thyroid conditions that mimic panic sensations, but a psychologist or psychiatrist with experience diagnosing and/or treating panic disorder is important. You can also assist by having patience with your loved one while they are working through their panic attack. Having patience, not rushing them and developing an action plan on what you can do during these attacks is a great proactive step. In general, giving that individual time and space to use their coping strategies for reducing anxiety can have a profound impact on reducing future panic attacks.
5. How can I help myself if I have panic disorder?
Psychotherapy techniques have been shown consistently to be a more longer term, lower risk and more efficacious way of treating panic over medications. One of the best coping skills for panic is “breathing retraining.” Follow the 4-4-8 method of breathing. This means breathe in through your nose for 4 seconds, pause for 4 seconds, then exhaling for 8 seconds. By breathing out longer than you intake air you will fully empty your lungs and slow down your pace allowing for better oxygen absorption. Another excellent skill for reducing panic attacks is engaging in exercises that might mimic some of the physical symptoms you experience (elevating your heart rate, sweating, etc.). By becoming accustomed to these sensations you can significantly decrease your body’s adverse reaction to them in other situations.
And as always it is very important to remember that treatment is helpful, recovery is possible, and you are so much more than just your symptoms.
Dr. Craig Dike earned his doctorate in clinical psychology at the University of Indianapolis in Indianapolis, Indiana. He completed his internship training at the Texas State University Counseling Center and his post-doctoral training at San Diego VA specializing in psychiatric rehabilitation and evidence based interventions for severe mental illness. His theoretical orientation is primarily cognitive-behavioral with third-wave influences. He is skilled in the application of empirically-supported group and individual treatments for anxiety, mood, and psychotic disorders. Dr. Dike has clinical and research interests in: metacognition, meditation, behavioral/functional genomics, biopsychosocial models of psychosis, recovery oriented interventions, neurobiology of psychological change, exposure based treatments for anxiety disorders, and CBT for psychosis.
In his free time Dr. Dike enjoys spending time with his children, family and friends, traveling, listening to music, hiking and enjoying nature, discovering great local restaurants, and watching his favorite sports of American and English football.