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Have you ever experienced a sudden surge of overwhelming anxiety, accompanied by physical symptoms like heart palpitations and shortness of breath? That is what we call a panic attack. In this post, we’ll break down exactly what a panic attack is, and explore some techniques for managing its symptoms.

Causes of Panic Attacks

Major life transitions or severe stress, like a new job or a big move, can trigger a panic attack. But it's not just external factors that can bring on the panic. I encourage people with anxiety to speak with their primary care provider about the panic symptoms and rule out any underlying medical conditions. Stimulant use and medication withdrawal can also cause sensations of panic.

Panic attacks can also be spontaneous, with no apparent cause, which can be frustrating and limiting to your everyday life.

Symptoms of Panic Attacks

Physical Symptoms

First up, we have the racing heartbeat or palpitations. Your heart may be beating so fast that you believe you're about to have a heart attack. In spite of the strong physiological response, it is rarely a medical emergency.

Then, there's the feeling of shortness of breath, rapid breathing, shallow breaths, or a choking sensation.

Let's not forget the notorious chest pain. But don't worry; it's just your body's way of telling you it's time to calm down.

Sweating. You might feel like you're in a sauna, but there's no exit, and it's starting to get steamy.

Finally, we have the numbness. It's like your limbs are suddenly not yours anymore. They're heavy, tingly, and you can barely move them.

All these physical symptoms may be overwhelming, but it's vital to remember that they will pass.

Cognitive Symptoms

When it comes to cognitive symptoms, panic attacks don't hold back. The fear can be overwhelming, and you might feel like you're on the brink of a mental breakdown.

One of the most common cognitive symptoms of panic attacks is the feeling of loss of control. It's like your life is a roller coaster and you're just along for the ride.

Another cognitive symptom that can accompany panic attacks is the feeling of detachment from reality or derealization. It's like you're living in a surreal dream world, where nothing makes sense or seems real. Remember that this feeling is only temporary.

Lastly, let's talk about the fear of dying, the ultimate loss of control. You might feel like this is it but it's just your mind playing tricks on you. Remind yourself that you are safe in your body and in control.

Emotional Symptoms

First off, we've got the classic sensation of fear. You can regain some sense of control by focusing on your body (e.g., deep breath, taking a shower, holding an ice cube) and practicing mindfulness exercises through all your sense (e.g., labeling everything you see and hear at this moment). Instead of analyzing your own mind, try to break the anxious thinking cycle by focusing your mind on an effortful task, like solving a crossword puzzle or math challenge.

If the panic attacks recur it's best to seek out professional help. Many mental health professionals specialize in the treatment of panic attacks, anxiety disorders, and anxiety attacks.

It is important to get help early on. Excessive worry about the panic attack can lead to a great deal of anticipatory anxiety and fearing fear itself.

Remember, it's important to recognize and understand the emotional symptoms of panic attacks and intense anxiety so that they can be properly addressed and managed. Seek out the help and support that you need.

Decreasing Anxiety and Panic Attack Triggers

Identifying Your Triggers

One of the first steps towards managing your panic attacks is identifying your own unique triggers.

Think back to the last few times you experienced a panic attack. What were you doing? Who were you with? Where were you? Once you have a clear picture of the situation, start to analyze any patterns that emerge. For example, do you tend to have panic attacks in enclosed spaces or in large crowds? Do financial problems or relationship stressors tend to trigger your anxiety?

It's crucial to note the environmental and emotional factors that trigger your panic attacks. This can help you avoid or manage those situations accordingly. We don't want to just avoid triggers forever. That's where specific techniques like exposure therapy and CBT come in. These techniques can help desensitize yourself to the triggers and change your response to them over time.

Practicing Self-Care and Stress-Management Techniques

Slow, deep breathing is incredibly effective in reducing anxiety and calming the body. Close your eyes, visualize a peaceful scene, and breathe in relaxation.

Meditation can help reduce stress levels, increase concentration, and improve overall mental well-being. It's like an exercise for your mind, and just like physical exercise, it takes some time to build up the habit.

Experts have found that exercising at 60 to 90 percent of your maximum heart rate for 20 minutes three times per week can help reduce anxiety. Even just a few minutes of physical activity can release endorphins, chemicals that trigger positive feelings in the body, reducing anxiety and improving mood.

Don't underestimate the power of social support, either. Talking to someone you trust can be incredibly therapeutic.

Last, the basics are key. A well-balanced diet, staying hydrated, and getting proper restful sleep are all essential factors in maintaining a healthy state of mind.

Seeking Professional Help for Anxiety Disorders

Seeking the help of a cognitive behavioral therapist with experience in treating anxiety can provide you with the tools to overcome your fears and reframe negative thought patterns. CBT has been found to be between 85 and 90 percent successful in treating panic.

If needed, medication can be a helpful tool in reducing the severity and frequency of intense panic attacks.

Coping Strategies to Help Calm a Panic Attack in the Moment

Deep breathing exercises can be a powerful tool to ease your symptoms and help you regain a sense of control.

Why deep breathing? The answer lies in the physiology of panic attacks. When you feel threatened, your amygdala, an important part of your brain for emotional processing, triggers the fight-or-flight response, which releases stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol into your bloodstream. Deep breathing, or belly breathing, is a technique that involves inhaling deeply through your nose, filling your lungs and diaphragm with air, and exhaling slowly through your mouth, emptying your lungs and relaxing your muscles. This type of breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which counteracts the fight-or-flight response by slowing down your heart rate, lowering your blood pressure, and relaxing your muscles. In other words, deep breathing can help you shift from a state of hyperarousal to a state of calmness and relaxation.

There are other strategies, such as progressive muscle relaxation, guided visualization, or distraction techniques like counting backward from 100. The key is to find what works for you and practice it regularly so that you can build your resilience and reduce the frequency and intensity of your panic attacks.

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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