Let’s talk about Panic Attacks to Take Action Now

Let’s start with the good news: nobody attacks you. The not-so-good news is that what you are experiencing are the symptoms of a panic attack since it falls under the ugly umbrella of anxiety. You may ask, okay what’s the difference? Or, more importantly, why does this distinction matter? When one refers to symptoms, it does not necessarily mean that you have taken care of the root cause of the problem. 

If I were to illustrate this, I’d use the flu as a parallelism. We know that one of the symptoms of flu is fever. If you take care of your fever, it does not mean that you’ve become immune to or killed the virus. Therefore, when you manage to slow down your fast heartbeat rate (i.e., your panic attack symptom), it does not mean that you’ve taken care of your anxiety levels. For that reason, when S. asked me to write about what people could do when faced with panic attacks, I replied that there’s not much because you are not actually dealing with the actual problem, but its symptoms. Nonetheless, I decided to write about panic attacks, because with so much stigma and misinformation people tend to be confused about what they actually are. 

According to the Diagnostic Statistical Manual-5 (DSM-5), when someone is diagnosed with panic attacks, he/she has at least 4 of these 13 symptoms: 

  • Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
  • A feeling of choking
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Nausea or abdominal distress
  • Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint
  • Feelings of unreality (derealization) or being detached from oneself (depersonalization)
  • Fear of losing control or going crazy
  • Fear of dying
  • Numbness or tingling sensations (paresthesias)
  • Chills or hot flushes

As with any disorder listed in the DSM-5, each person may express his/her symptoms differently and in a different range of intensity. However, one of the most prominent symptoms is the fear of having an actual panic attack. Another important element that distinguishes panic attack symptoms from any other anxiety symptom is the fact that it’s difficult to recognize the trigger, that’s why some people report that “it came out of the blue.”

For those who have friends and/or family members experiencing panic attack symptoms is important to understand that the level of fear they are experiencing is not proportional to the actual fear and usually it’s completely unrelated to what may be happening at the present time. Therefore, comments like “it’s nothing”, and “don’t be afraid” although they can be well-intentioned may make your friend feel invalidated because you do not recognize how he/she is feeling which, considering that it does not follow a logical pattern, it’s difficult to verbally communicate what is the situation.  What you can do is to ensure him/her that you are there and that there is no imminent danger (if there isn’t) and ensure him/her that it will pass in only a few minutes.

For those who have experienced and are experiencing panic attacks, take action now. Ask for help from a professional because the more you ignore the symptoms, the more your anxiety may escalate to the point where you also have phobias. Research studies showed that untreated anxiety expressed in panic attack symptoms may lead to a greater risk of suicide attempts, more time in hospital rooms, alcohol and/or drug abuse, less time on pleasurable activities, an emotionally and physically unhealthy lifestyle, and financial dependence.