Panic Attacks: Recognizing One and What To Do

Knowing what to do when someone is experiencing a panic attack can have a major impact on them

May 12, 2023

People often joke that they are suffering from a “panic attack” without actually knowing what a panic attack is. Such talk only contributes to the stigma that surrounds panic disorder and around those who experience panic attacks.

Keep Reading To Learn

  • The signs and symptoms of panic attacks
  • How to respond if you or someone you know is having a panic attack
  • How to overcome the stigma associated with panic attacks

A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear, often triggering physical reactions even when there is no real threat.

Panic attacks can be very debilitating. They may even physically immobilize someone.

When a person has a panic attack, their heart starts pounding and they have trouble breathing. Some people feel they are losing touch with reality. In some cases, they may not know the cause.

Some people only have a single panic attack., while others may experience repeat episodes. For those who have recurring episodes, mental health professionals can work to help identify the cause and triggers.

Overall, the exact cause of panic disorder and panic attacks is unclear. However, panic attacks do appear to run in families. In some situations, a major life shift can bring on a panic attack.

Panic vs. Anxiety

Woman sits on couch with head in hand and kids running around her

A little worry can be healthy. Understanding the difference between normal worries, unhealthy anxiety, and panic can be the key to getting help when you need it.

Woman sits on couch with head in hand and kids running around her

Can Medical Conditions Cause Panic Attacks?

In addition to specific mental health conditions, medical conditions can cause panic attacks to develop. These include:

  • Hyperthyroidism, or an overactive thyroid gland
  • Withdrawal from certain medications, particularly those used to treat mental health conditions
  • The use of stimulants such as caffeine, cocaine, and amphetamines
  • Hyperglycemia, or high blood sugar
  • Mitral valve prolapse, a heart condition

Know the Signs and Symptoms of Panic Attacks

As with other conditions, panic attacks can be different from person to person. However, there are a few common symptoms that people experience, including:

  • A sudden fear of death
  • A sense of impending doom or danger
  • A rapidly rising heart rate
  • The development of chills and hot flashes
  • A feeling like someone is squeezing the throat
  • The development of nausea, vomiting, and abdominal cramps
  • Dizziness, vertigo, lightheadedness, or feeling faint

Again, these symptoms can vary from person to person. Some people may have all of the symptoms described above while others may have only one or two.

People who experience panic attacks are often embarrassed by a sudden onset of their symptoms. Since they are often inexplicable, it is critical for everyone to understand what to do in the event of a panic attack.

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De-Escalation: Treating a Panic Attack

If you are having a panic attack, it is important to know how to respond.

If you are experiencing a panic attack, try the following:

  • Practice slowing your breathing down, aim for a breath about every six seconds
  • Recognize that you are having a panic attack and practice observing the sensations that you are having instead of trying to control them
  • Remember that all panic attacks are temporary and will eventually pass
  • Do a mindfulness exercise, gently focusing on internal (e.g., thoughts, feelings, sensations) and external experiences (e.g., five senses)
  • Focus on a single object in the distance and do not waver from it; for example, focus on the hands of a clock, the colors of leaves, or the movements of those around you
  • Relax your muscles one at a time, focusing on each muscle individually

Though it may not feel like it in the moment, it’s important to remember that every panic attack eventually ends. By responding to your panic attacks in a gentle and logical way, you will create a softer landing for yourself.

Whether this is your first panic attack or your hundredth, you should try to work with your body, relax your muscles, and calm your mind. If you are able to do this, the panic may pass more quickly.

How to Help Someone Who Is Having a Panic Attack

It can be frightening to witness someone having a panic attack. Many of the symptoms resemble life-threatening medical conditions, such as a stroke or a heart attack.

If someone is experiencing a panic attack, be sure to:

  • Remain calm: If you look frightened, this may make the panic attack worse; try to be understanding and nonjudgmental
  • Help the other person by encouraging them to breathe; breathe slowly and breathe together
  • Encourage them to focus on something else; for example, you may ask them to name five different objects in the distance
  • Whatever you are asking them to do, try to do that same thing: If you lead by example, the other person will likely follow
  • Once the panic attack ends, encourage your friend or loved one to get help

Remember that many people are embarrassed if they have a panic attack. Remind them there is nothing to be embarrassed about, but that it is important to take steps to prevent panic attacks from happening in the future.

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Stopping Stigma Surrounding Panic Attacks

In addition to helping people who experience panic attacks, it is important to dispel the stigma around them. Unfortunately, the public holds common misconceptions about panic attacks.

Some of the most common of these include:

  • Folks who have panic attacks are simply weak-minded
  • People who experience panic attacks are “just faking it”
  • Panic attacks are not as serious as they appear
  • People with panic disorder are doing it to themselves

The only way to stamp out stigma surrounding panic attacks and panic disorder is to educate others about how common they are and how important it is to help people experiencing them.

Be Prepared!

You can learn more about panic and anxiety and share your knowledge with others. As people realize that panic disorder is real, the stigma will begin to fade.

You can learn relaxation techniques. Everyone gets anxious from time to time. If people practice relaxation techniques together, they will have a better understanding of panic attacks.

You can find expert advice on panic disorder. Mental health professionals can help the public understand the seriousness of panic attacks.

If we can dispel the stigma surrounding panic attacks, it will be easier for those who struggle with them to get help.

If you or a loved one need help managing your mental health, McLean is here to help. Call us today at 617.855.3141 to learn more about treatment options.

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