It’s just a typical day at work. You’re typing away at your computer, when out of the blue your hands begin to tremble, your heart races and you begin to sweat. Suddenly it feels like your office space—and the world—is closing in on you.
Are you getting sick? Is this a heart attack? Or could you be having a panic attack?
What are panic attacks?
“Panic attacks are quick and intense fears that trigger strong physiological, emotional and behavioral reactions but with no apparent cause or reason,” said Jerimya Fox, a licensed professional counselor and a doctor of behavioral health at Banner Behavioral Health Hospital. “They can be quite scary, but thankfully, they aren’t life-threatening.”
It’s estimated that many people will have one or two panic attacks in their lifetime, and about 3% of Americans will develop a panic disorder, an anxiety disorder with unexpected and repeated episodes. And it appears that women are twice more likely than men to suffer from anxiety disorders.
If you believe you may be suffering from a panic attack, here’s how to tell if you’re having one, why it may have happened and how to cope.
What does a panic attack feel like?
Unfortunately, panic attacks can occur suddenly, without warning. There’s no way to stop a panic attack after it starts. Attacks typically last less than 30 minutes, but sometimes can vary.
A panic attack is an abrupt period of intense fear and is accompanied by four or more of the following emotional, physiological and behavioral symptoms:
- Persistent worrying
- Derealization (feeling of unreality)
- Fear of losing control
- Fear of dying
- Heart palpitations
- Chest tightness
- Stomach pains
- Dizziness and shaking
- Blurry vision
“These sudden episodes and symptoms are why oftentimes people with panic attacks end up in the emergency room,” Dr. Fox said. “Many feel like they’re having a heart attack.”
What causes panic attacks?
It’s not known what causes panic attacks or panic disorders, but here are some factors that can contribute to them:
- Major life stressors (work, death, relationships)
- Genetics (family history)
- Excessive caffeine or nicotine intake
- Sexual or domestic abuse
- Lack of sleep
- Changes in brain function
“Certain people are vulnerable to panic attacks when they have increased stress, as a person’s stress level increases the sympathetic nervous system and triggers a ‘fight-or-flight’ response,” Dr. Fox said. “It’s like pressing on the gas pedal and telling your body to get going.”
What can I do to reduce or prevent panic attacks?
There are many reasons you might have a panic attack, and everyone has different triggers and reasons for having one. What’s important is to understand why you might be feeling stressed or anxious and what situations or places can cause you to have panic attacks. This is where seeking help from a licensed behavioral health specialist can help.
“Cognitive behavioral therapy, a type of psychotherapy, can help you learn about panic attacks and triggers, what causes you to have them and how you can monitor them,” Dr. Fox said. “As you start to respond differently to your attacks, you’ll start to notice them decreasing and stopping.”
If necessary, panic attacks can also be treated with medications, such as Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs).
There are also several practical things you can do to help reduce your panic attacks. These include:
- Regular exercise
- Avoid smoking
- Reduce alcohol, caffeine and cannabis
- Get enough sleep
- Eat a healthy diet, low in greasy, fatty foods
- Journal about how you’re feeling
- Practice relaxation and deep breathing techniques, such as yoga or meditation
What can you do if you have a panic attack?
If you experience a panic attack for the first time, talk to your health care provider. Since symptoms can mimic other conditions, you’ll want to have your symptoms checked out.
If you’ve experienced panic attacks in the past and understand their causes, here are some helpful reminders to help you cope:
- Find a safe space
- Close your eyes and practice deep, slow breathing
- Focus on your five senses and surroundings
- Remind yourself to stay calm and that it will pass
Could I have a panic disorder?
The major differences between a panic attack and a panic disorder are frequency and duration of the attacks. If you’re having panic attacks on a regular basis and you aren’t sure what is causing them, this could be a sign of a panic disorder.
“There’s no sure way to prevent a panic disorder or attack, but there are things you can do to treat and manage them. Getting treatment should be your first priority,” Dr. Fox said. “If left untreated it can begin to affect every area of your life.”
If your symptoms aren’t improving and you aren’t sure what to do, contact your health care provider or find a licensed behavioral health specialist who can help.
Related mental health articles:
- All the Ways Stress Can Impact Your Life
- Living With Depression and Anxiety
- What Is High Functioning Anxiety, and Do I Have It?