Panic attacks are so difficult to predict and manage because they tend to just come out of nowhere for no reason at all.
They are often immediate, causing intense, overwhelming fear for no tangible reason.
A similar experience would be an event that evokes the Fight or Flight response.
The person isn’t consciously and deliberately thinking about their actions. Their mind is just responding to whatever the stimulus is – an overwhelming feeling that something is wrong and needs to be addressed RIGHT NOW.
One should not confuse panic attacks with anxiety attacks. Though often used interchangeably by those who haven’t suffered either, these are two different conditions with different effects.
A person can experience both an anxiety attack and a panic attack at the same time.
Other times, they might experience anxiety that later triggers a panic attack from the negative stimulus.
There are two categories of panic attack – unexpected and expected.
An unexpected panic attack does not have a tangible cause that’s easy to identify. It may come out of nowhere with no trigger or discernible cause.
An expected panic attack is triggered by external circumstances that evoke that overwhelming response.
A phobia is a good example of an expected panic attack. A claustrophobic person may have a panic attack if they find themselves in a confined space. That would be expected.
Everyone is capable of having a panic attack if they are too overloaded in a particular way.
However, a person who experiences multiple or regular panic attacks may actually have a panic disorder.
Panic and anxiety attacks differ in many significant ways. The first of which is that a panic attack has a specific definition whereas an anxiety attack does not.
What Is A Panic Attack?
The DSM-5 (a tool that helps health professionals diagnose mental health disorders) denotes a panic attack as a person experiencing a period of intense fear or discomfort and manifests four or more of the following symptoms to a peak within 10 minutes.
- Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate.
- Trembling or shaking.
- Sensations of shortness of breath or smother.
- Feeling of choking.
- Chest pain or discomfort.
- Nausea or abdominal distress.
- Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint.
- Derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself)
- Fear of losing control or “going crazy.”
- Fear of dying.
- Paresthesias. (numbness or tingling sensations)
- Chills or hot flushes.
There are different qualities that determine if a person potentially has a panic disorder.
Those include agoraphobia, drug and stimulant use, lifestyle implications, or recurring panic attacks.
What Is An Anxiety Attack?
Anxiety and anxiety disorders have different definitions.
Anxiety itself is a normal human emotion.
A person may experience anxiety when they are in a period of discomfort, unpleasantness, or stress.
That feeling of apprehension and fear is the body’s way of telling the conscious mind that something needs to be done about the present situation so that the anxiety will go away.
A job interview, first date, or stepping into the unknown can all cause feelings of anxiety.
An anxiety disorder is a recurring, persistent state of excessive worry that lasts at least six months and negatively affects a person’s quality of life and their ability to conduct their life effectively.
The person would also experience at least three of the following symptoms.
- Difficulty concentrating.
- Irritability or explosive anger.
- Muscle tension.
- Sleep disturbances.
- Personality changes, such as becoming less social.
A person experiencing an anxiety attack will usually have a slow build.
They may start off apprehensive and worried about a particular thing and how it can go wrong.
That worry may subsequently manifest in accompanying physical symptoms, like nausea, chest pains, or a racing heart.
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How Do You Help Someone Through A Panic Attack?
1. Stay calm.
The calmer you can stay, the easier it will be for the person experiencing the panic attack.
Panic and anxiety in other people can make the attack worse.
Do whatever is necessary to maintain your own composure and speak calmly without negative or excited emotion.
A softer, normal conversational tone will help prevent the situation from deteriorating further.
2. Call an ambulance (if appropriate).
Panic attacks share many similarities with heart attacks in the symptoms that present.
If you’re around someone who you suspect is having a panic attack, the first thing to do is ask them if they are having a panic attack or have any history of panic attacks.
If the answer is no, they aren’t sure or act confused, or the person loses consciousness, notify authorities immediately through an emergency line.
Chest pains should always be evaluated by a medical professional.
3. Move away from panic stimulus.
If the panic attack has been triggered by a particular stimulus (i.e. it is expected) and you are able to move away from that stimulus, do so slowly and calmly.
If a person experiences panic when in a crowded place, for example, try to leave that crowd and find a more open and quiet space in which to sit.
4. Ask the person what will help them.
Don’t assume that any advice you may have read or heard from other people will apply to this person.
Everyone is different and will experience things in different ways. What is helpful to one person may be harmful to another.
Do be attentive, ask what you can do to help, and then provide that assistance.
5. Offer reassurance and calm presence.
Remind the person that it’s only a panic attack and they’re not in any danger.
Though they may be frightened and overwhelmed at the moment, that feeling and the symptoms will pass.
Speak in short sentences and with firmness. Be patient with them and stay with them through the attack.
Panic attacks will typically last about 20 or 30 minutes.
6. Encourage the person to seek appropriate help and support.
There’s only so much help a person without professional training can provide.
So it’s best to encourage the person to seek professional help after experiencing the panic attack so they can find a solution for managing them in the future.
Also suggest that they look into support groups, communities, family, or friends that may be able to offer meaningful support.
A support group for people with a shared mental illness can be an excellent source of support and knowledge.
A panic attack is something that really needs to be waited out until the symptoms pass.
That means patience, calmness, and presence are the most important factors in helping someone through a panic attack.
You don’t need to have answers to difficult questions or be prepared to move the world. A simple, calming presence can do wonders in not making the situation any worse.
This strategy can also be used to assist someone through an anxiety attack, though professional intervention is less likely to be needed.
An acute anxiety attack is an intense experience, but it generally won’t be as intense as a panic attack.
Do err on the side of caution and alert authorities if the person feels it is necessary, loses consciousness, or has chest pains.
Do Practice Self-Care And Decompress
Being patient and compassionate through a panic attack and acute mental health problems can be stressful and difficult, particularly if it is a loved one who you’re trying to be there for.
The key to making those long-term relationships work is in practicing self-care, taking breaks to recharge when you need them.
Some people are more sensitive to these stresses than others and you won’t always get it right.
It’s hard to be calm, patient, and collected when things seem like they’re going awry.
Do practice kindness to yourself, as it is just as important as practicing kindness to others.