Panic attacks can be very disturbing and frightening, and can significantly affect the quality of life. When a panic attack occurs, a person may think that he or she is losing control or that he/she might have a heart attack. Many people have one or two panic attacks in their lifetime, and the problem probably goes away when the stressful situation ends.
However, if you experience recurrent, unexpected panic attacks and have long periods of constant fear, you probably have a condition called panic disorder. But there are effective treatments, and here in the UK, you can find specialized help. On Guide to Rehab we connect UK professionals with residents in need of therapy.
It can be when a person has recurrent episodes of fear (anxiety/anxiety/agitation) very intense, occurring suddenly and unexpectedly, “out of nowhere”. These episodes, called panic attacks can last minutes, but usually, reach maximum intensity in the first 10 minutes. Panic attacks can occur from time to time or, conversely, very frequently and often cannot be predicted (i.e. the trigger is unknown to the person concerned).
A single panic attack is not a diagnosis in itself. Many people go through a panic attack (or even several) throughout their lives and do not develop a clinical disorder. A diagnosis of panic disorder is made when a person passes by recurrent panic attacks and is overwhelmed by worries or fear thereof. For example, the person is overly concerned about the implications that panic attacks will have on his life:
- “What if I die one day?
- What if I go crazy?
- What if I can’t work anymore?
- What if I can’t enjoy life anymore? ”
Panic disorder is an anxiety disorder, which occurs in about 2-5% of people and usually begins after the age of 20.
Symptoms of a panic attack
Usually, a panic attack starts suddenly, without alarming signals. It can happen anytime – while driving, when at the mall, just before falling asleep, or even when attending a business meeting.
Panic attacks can be occasional or frequent. Panic attacks have many variations, but the symptoms can reach their peak within a few minutes. After a panic attack, you may feel tired and exhausted.
Generally, a panic attack includes some signs or symptoms. These include:
- the feeling of imminent danger
- fear of losing control or fear of death
- palpitations, fast heart rate (heart beats fast, or with an altered rhythm)
- chest pain (angina pectoris)
- agoraphobia (fear of open spaces)
- difficulty breathing (dyspnea)
- hot flushes
- abdominal cramps
- vertigo (dizziness) or fainting
- paresthesia (tingling) in the extremities of the limbs
People who have panic attacks may fear that these feelings will come back. The fear makes people avoid certain situations (to leave the house, coming into contact with other people). Since panic attacks are recurring events, patients often develop a secondary form of anticipatory anxiety, constantly worrying about the place and timing of the next attack.
How does panic occur?
If we understand the causes of panic, we understand how to treat it. First, we must know that there is not one single factor that explains all the symptoms. There can be general vulnerability factors (i.e. some individuals are more predisposed to develop panic throughout life), specific causal factors (past or childhood experiences, current life situation, physical and mental health problems, drugs and medication) and factors that do not directly cause panic attacks, but preserve/aggravate symptoms in the long term.
Certain aspects could play a role in triggering panic attacks or panic disorder:
- genetic predisposition
- high levels of stress
- increased sensitivity to stress or prone to negative emotions
- certain changes in brain function
- different mental and behavioural disorders (certain conditions – depression, post-traumatic stress disorder can lead to panic attacks)
- consumption of certain substances. Among the substances associated with panic attacks are nicotine, caffeine, alcohol
At first, panic attacks occur suddenly and without warning, but over time, are triggered by certain situations.
Diagnostic criteria for panic disorder
Not all people who have panic attacks also have panic disorder. For the diagnosis of panic disorder, the following aspects are taken into account:
- unexpected, frequent panic attacks
- at least one of the panic attacks was followed by another (or by anxiety symptoms) in the same month; continued fear of the consequences of an attack, such as loss of control, fear of going insane, significant changes in behaviour, such as avoiding situations that could trigger a panic attack
- the panic attacks have not been caused by drugs or other substances, a medical condition, another mental illness, such as a social phobia or obsessive-compulsive disorder
Even if you have panic attacks, but have not been diagnosed with panic disorder, you can benefit from treatment in the UK. If panic attacks are not treated, symptoms can become worse and develop into panic disorders or phobias.
How to treat panic attacks?
Treatment can help reduce the intensity and frequency of panic attacks and can improve your quality of life. The main treatment options are psychotherapy and medications. One or both types of treatment may be recommended, depending on your preference, history, and severity of the panic disorder. On Guide to Rehab you have access to therapists in different areas of the UK who have special training in treating panic disorder.
If you are struggling with the symptoms of a panic attack, seek medical help as soon as possible. Although panic attacks last only a few minutes can cause a lot of suffering to the patient (after a certain age, in a person with cardio/cerebrovascular APP it could be dangerous). Panic attacks are difficult to manage alone and may worsen without proper treatment. The symptoms of a panic attack can be similar to other serious health problems such as heart attack, so it is so important to be evaluated by a therapist if you are unsure what is causing the symptoms.