I had heard about them, but never really knew what panic attacks were. Unfortunately, one day, very unexpectedly, I learned the hard way.
I was driving on an expressway in Miami, Florida, when a sudden chest pain, that radiated towards my left arm, forced me to cross all the lanes and pull over on the shoulder of the road. Along with the pain came extreme sweating and shortness of breath — all the components of, what I thought was, a heart attack.
Since I was sure I was going to die, I stopped the car and immediately called 9-1-1, assuming that they were going to find me dead upon arrival.
Less than 10 minutes passed when I saw the rescue vehicle approaching, and by that time, inexplicably, I was feeling fine.
The paramedics told me that I had suffered a panic attack. That diagnosis left me even more confused.
What is a panic attack
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, people with panic disorders misinterpret certain inoffensive body sensations as threats, and the U.S. National Library of Medicine classifies panic attacks as an anxiety disorder.
Dr. Addys Karunaratne, PhD, clinical psychologist in Miami, FL, offers this definition:
“A panic attack is a sudden wave of intense fear, or sharp unease, that reaches its high point in a few minutes.”
Dr. Karunaratne explains that during those few minutes, four or more of the following symptoms may arise:
- Palpitations or accelerated heart rate
- Shortness of breath or suffocation
- Sense of asphyxia
- Chest pain
- Nausea or discomfort in the abdomen
- Dizziness, unsteadiness
- Chills or hot flashes
- Tingling, numbness or a burning sensation in the skin
- Sense of disconnection with reality or depersonalization
- Fear of losing control or going insane
- Fear of dying
For the panic episode to be classified as such, “A panic attack must be followed, for at least a month or more, by the persistent worry or fear that others will take place, or assumed consequences such as loss of control, having a heart attack, or going insane,” says the doctor.
The doctor also says that the episode or attack cannot be:
- Attributed to the psychological effect of a substance
- Caused or brought on by another mental disorder
In order to diagnose behavioral problems in the area of health, explains Doctor Karunaratne, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-5 (DSM-5), is used, which is a guide that establishes criteria to identify panic disorders, as well as, generalized anxiety.
Causes of a panic attack
Doctor Karunaratne says that stress is the most common trigger, and the factors that most frequently bring on an attack are:
- The death of a loved one
- Work-related stress
The U.S. National Library of Medicine says that generally panic attacks start during youth, and are more frequent among women than men.
The demands of daily life can also be stressful for some people and lead to intense feelings of panic, and thus trigger those attacks.
Karla Beneke suffered from them for several years, and they reached the point of landing her in a hospital emergency room three times.
“I was very young, and my job was very stressful,” says Karla. “Since I couldn’t separate it from my personal life, I felt very overwhelmed. I would experience panic attacks driving on a highway, in the middle of work, and there were even times when they woke me up in the middle of the night.”
As for myself, when I experienced the throws of an attack in the middle of a Miami highway, that was exactly the cause of my panic attack — an excessive workload.
Are panic attacks a reaction to extreme anxiety?
Although a panic attack falls under the category of anxiety disorders, “It is not an extreme form of anxiety,” says Dr. Karunaratne. “It includes different criteria from generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), which most people associate with anxiety.”
“The main difference is that people with panic disorders experience physical symptoms, while those with GAD are characterized by excessive worry that must be experienced most days for at least six months.”
According to the reference guide, these are some of the symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder:
- Instability or having “frayed nerves”
- Becoming easily fatigued
- Difficulty concentrating or having “a blank mind”
- Muscular tension
- Difficulty falling asleep, agitated or unsatisfactory sleep
What causes anxiety and panic attacks?
Dr. Karunaratne says that there is significant evidence that anxiety disorders have a strong genetic component, and there are both physical and psychological factors that play a role.
Scientific evidence also suggests that an imbalance of neurotransmitters in the brain could contribute to panic attacks and anxiety disorders.
How to control anxiety and panic attacks
Antidepressant medications are not the only option out there when it comes to treating panic attacks and anxiety. There are options before medications, and one of them that has proven to be effective is psychotherapy, says psychologist Addys Karunaratne.
Psychotherapy helps identify what provokes panic attacks or anxiety, and also helps changing patterns of thought. But sometimes these methods are not enough to control the symptoms of panic attacks, and it is necessary to resort to medications called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Some you may have heard of include Paxil, Prozac, and Zoloft.
Patients can also learn other strategies to reduce the frequency of anxiety and panic attacks such as breathing relaxation techniques and visualization.
Dr. Karunaratne explains that, according to studies, the best treatment for anxiety disorders is a combination of medication and psychotherapy, especially a method called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
How to find help for anxiety and panic attacks
“A panic disorder can be debilitating if it happens so frequently and intensely that it renders patients unable to perform their daily tasks, to the point of causing them problems at work, with their finances, and in their relationships,” concludes Dr. Karunaratne.
If you are experiencing any symptoms of a panic attack, or general anxiety disorder, it is very important that you seek professional medical help as soon as possible. Many of these conditions can interfere with the quality of your personal relationships and everyday life.
Don’t let fear or embarrassment hold you back from getting the help you need.
Karla, for her part, did not need medication or psychotherapy. She freed herself from panic attacks by changing her job and learning to deal with work problems and leaving them behind at the office under lock and key.
I found help through my general practitioner, and fortunately, had good results. Although I do have to admit, that every now and then, I still sometimes get a little anxious when I’m on an expressway full of cars!
For ways to find help, and for more information visit:
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