Panic attacks can be terrifying — for the person experiencing them and for people witnessing their occurrence.
It turns out that panic attacks might be more common than people realize. About 3% of us are diagnosed with panic disorder, which involves repeated panic attacks that typically occur without warning, but millions more have panic attacks less frequently.
“Approximately one-third of all people will experience one to two panic attacks at some point in their lives,” says Juanita Guerra, a clinical psychologist practicing meditation in New Rochelle, New York.
Understanding what a panic attack feels like and how to respond can be helpful.
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What is a panic attack?
A panic attack is a sudden episode of “acute fear or worry, where the individual feels terrified, threatened or like they’re at risk of dying,” Guerra says.
One of the things that makes it so troubling is that the onset is often unexpected and can be triggered by an unknown factor.
Though the experience doesn’t last long, “Panic attacks can be very scary,” Guerra says.
What does it feel like?
Each panic attack can vary. Generally, though, someone experiencing an episode will have a pounding or rapid heartbeat and chest pain and will feel some shakiness or trembling.
The symptoms often make people feel they’re having a heart attack, which is why “people often misinterpret their symptoms and believe they are having a heart attack and therefore go to the hospital,” Guerra says. “Often, they are doubtful of their diagnosis or shocked to learn they had a panic attack and not a heart attack.”
Some people having a panic attack experience other or additional symptoms that might include disorientation, a sudden feeling of being hot or cold, sweating and lightheadedness or dizziness.
“Hyperventilating or difficulty breathing is another common symptom of panic attacks that can increase the fear you’re experiencing,” says Amanda Darnley, a psychologist in Philadelphia.
Though panic attacks sometimes are confused with anxiety attacks, they’re different things.
“A panic attack can have similar symptoms as anxiety,” says Jimmy Noorlander, a licensed clinical social worker in Utah. “The difference is: Panic attacks come on suddenly, while anxiety can be a constant worry.”
What to do
When someone is having a panic attack, “The first thing they should try to do is control their breathing,” Guerra says.
Take slow, deep breaths, concentrating on each extended inhale and exhale. Focusing your attention away from the episode also can help.
“Focus on something specific in the environment, a picture or object, and use it to ground yourself,” Guerra says.
Some people find a splash of water to the face can help calm them. Ohers repeat a mantra or focus on reassuring words of a loved one that everything will be OK.
Noorlander says tapping has also been shown to be effective during panic attacks. Tapping is a mind-body therapy technique in which you take one or two fingers and tap the fingertips gently around your face, head, hands, arms or neck.
Darnley says that, during a panic attack, it’s also often helpful to remind yourself it will pass quickly and without any lasting physical damage.
“Symptoms typically peak within 10 minutes and dissipate soon after,” she says.
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