Understanding Panic Attacks

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Panic attacks come under the umbrella of anxiety disorders. They are characterised by intense fear that leads to physical sensations such as a racing heart, shaking, and feeling faint. Young people experience panic attacks for a number of different reasons, and the overwhelming anxiety of having more panic attacks is what is known as panic disorder. Untreated panic disorder can have a detrimental impact on your life, leading someone to live in constant fear about future panic attacks and isolating themselves from life, which can lead to further mental health conditions.

Fortunately, if you are suffering from panic attacks and panic disorder there is treatment available. Treating panic disorder and other anxiety disorders begins by talking openly with a mental health specialist who will then provide you with psychotherapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, to help to stop panic attacks. You may also be given medication to help manage your anxiety disorder.

What Is a Panic Attack?

A panic attack is a sudden feeling of overwhelming fear that leads to intense physical symptoms despite having no apparent immediate danger or cause. If they are in response to a direct cause, they are often disproportionate to the event. Panic attacks can be scary as some people who experience them feel like they are having a heart attack or dying and may have no idea what is happening to them.

Panic attacks are not the same as panic disorder. Panic attacks can happen suddenly and in isolation. Many young people will only have a couple of panic attacks during their life, however, others have recurrent panic attacks which can lead to panic disorder. Unexpected panic attacks can damage your mental health and lead you to live in fear of further attacks.

Panic Attack Symptoms

Panic attacks aren’t life-threatening, but they can be very frightening. The symptoms of panic attacks typically peak within minutes, and the symptoms of a panic attack can include the following:

  • Fast and pounding heart rate
  • The feeling of impending doom or danger
  • Sense of losing control
  • Feeling like you’re going to die or are having a heart attack
  • Sweating
  • Choking feeling
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Hot flashes
  • Chills
  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Feeling a tightness in the throat
  • Nausea
  • Cramping
  • Chest pain
  • Headache
  • Feeling faint
  • Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
  • Feeling detached and a feeling of unreality

Panic attacks can have a significant impact on your life due to the fear that they induce. Many people with panic disorder are terrified they will have another panic attack, leading young people to avoid places and situations in fear of one occurring.

What Can Trigger Panic Attacks?

Panic attacks are believed to be triggered when the body’s ‘flight-or-fight’ response is activated without any danger. The ‘flight-or-fight’ response is when the brain sends messages to the autonomic nervous system, flooding it with chemicals such as adrenaline that result in psychological changes. These physical symptoms include:

  • Faster heart rate
  • Faster breathing
  • Blood is moved to the muscles in preparation for running or fighting

So, what factors can lead someone to have their ‘flight-or-fight’ response triggered with no apparent cause, leading to panic attacks? Some factors include:

  • Acute stress (for example experiencing trauma) as this can suddenly lead the body to produce lots of stress chemicals
  • Chronic stress as it leads the body to produce more stress chemicals than normal
  • Intense physical exercise – this can result in extreme anxiety reactions in some people
  • High levels of caffeine
  • Illness
  • A sudden environmental change – for example being stuck on an overcrowded train
  • Certain medications
  • Drug abuse
  • Habitual hyperventilation – this leads there to be a lack of carbon dioxide in the blood and disturbs the balance of blood gasses

What Is Panic Disorder?

Panic disorder comes under the anxiety disorders classification. Panic disorder is when you experience multiple panic attacks and fear overwhelms you about having another one, leading people to often avoid situations or develop agoraphobia. Those with panic disorder have excessive anxiety and there is often a depression association. Symptoms of panic disorder include having multiple panic attacks in a relatively short space of time and living in fear of the next panic attack. This can severely disrupt your everyday life and result in you living with extreme anxiety or what is known as anticipatory anxiety about having another panic attack.

Repeated panic attacks over the course of a week may indicate that you are suffering from severe panic disorder.

What Are the Causes of Panic Disorder?

It is not entirely understood what exactly causes panic disorder and most panic attacks. However, there are a few things that are thought to contribute to it. These include the following:

  • Genetics
  • Life changes
  • Anxiety
what is a panic attack

Treatment For Panic Disorders

Fortunately, mental disorders such as panic attacks and panic disorder can be treated so you no longer have to live in continual fear. Like many mental health conditions, panic disorder can be treated through a mixture of psychotherapy and medication. Young people with panic disorder symptoms often find it difficult to seek help, especially if this means leaving the house and they are worried that this may trigger a panic attack. However, there are now ways to access therapy such as through video calls, which can help young people who struggle to go outside for fear of panic attacks.

Either talk therapy, medication, or a combination of the two will be recommended. This will be based on the individual, the severity of your panic disorder, and your health history.

Psychotherapy

In terms of therapy, this is a very popular way of treating anxiety and panic disorder. It can aid you in getting to the root cause of your panic disorder and panic attacks, and find useful ways of managing it and ways to prevent panic attacks.

Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) can help you to understand that you are not in serious danger of physical harm when you have a panic attack. This is useful as the young person struggling will begin to feel less threatened and the symptoms of panic disorder will start to ease. To treat panic disorder, a mental health professional will help you slowly recreate the symptoms of panic disorder in a repetitive, safe environment so that you begin to overcome your fear.

Medication

Medication can be used in order to ease symptoms of panic disorder and other mental health conditions such as depression if needed. There are certain medications that have shown effectiveness in helping with panic disorder and panic attacks. These include:

  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) – these are types of antidepressants and are usually the first choice of medication to treat panic attacks.
  • Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) – these are a type of antidepressant medication.
  • Benzodiazepines – these are central nervous system depressants and are usually only used short-term due to their high risk of dependency and addiction. They are not recommended for those with a history of drug and alcohol abuse and can also have a dangerous interaction with other drugs.

Always consult a doctor to see which medication is best for you, as some can be dangerous for individuals who have health conditions or are taking other medication.

Treatment at The Wave

Don’t let fear of panic attacks rule and ruin your life. Diagnosing panic disorder and having it treated by a mental health professional can put you on track to a life free from intense anxiety and panic attacks. Through medication and psychotherapy, it is entirely possible to stop having panic attacks and panic disorder.

At The Wave we offer specialised treatment for teenagers and young people struggling with their mental health. We have extensive experience working with young people and understand that they have different needs and ways of thinking, so we focus specifically on helping them and their families. We offer a range of treatments for anxiety disorders such as art therapy, experiential therapy, and group therapy. If you are looking for the best possible recovery as a young person, get in touch with The Wave today.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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