What is a panic attack?
Panic attacks feel awful. Panic is different from anxiety, which is something not a lot of people know. Anxiety is the feeling of being nervous, uneasy, or awkward–that you’ve been forced into an uncomfortable situation. Often this can include worry about something that may happen in the immediate or distant future.
Panic attacks refer to an abrupt rush of intense fear or discomfort, reaching a peak within minutes, accompanied by physical and cognitive symptoms. What does that mean exactly? All of us have experienced that panicky feeling, but a panic attack is different. A panic attack hits you fast and hard, like a ton of bricks. Here are some symptoms, at least four of which have to occur to be considered a panic attack:
- Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
- Trembling or shaking
- Feeling short or breath or smothered
- Feelings of choking
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Nausea or abdominal distress
- Feeling dizzy, unsteady, light-headed or faint
- Chills or heat sensations
- Numbness or tingling sensations
- Feelings of unreality or being detached from oneself
- Fear of losing control of ‘going crazy’
- Fear of dying
What’s the difference between a panic attack and Panic Disorder?
Occasional panic attacks are actually pretty common. Not everyone who experiences occasional panic attacks develops panic disorder.
Panic Disorder is a formal psychiatric diagnosis. If you have a panic attack occasionally–or even frequently–but don’t spend much time worrying about having another one, you do not have panic disorder. If you have panic attacks and you tend to know what causes them, you don’t have panic disorder. You can still be helped by counseling if you’d like to know how to better deal with having a panic attacks, but Panic Disorder is different.
Panic Disorder is only diagnosed if you have unexpected panic attacks that continue to occur, and you’ve been spending at least one month continuously worried about having another panic attack, or what might happen the next time you have one (losing control, having a heart attack, ‘going crazy’, etc).
What is Agoraphobia?
Agoraphobia is a disorder that can happen in relation to panic attacks. It doesn’t always happen, and sometimes it happens on its own, without any panic attacks. Agoraphobia refers to anxiety about, or avoidance of, situations where panic attacks or other physical symptoms (such as diarrhea) are expected to occur. Typically these are situations where you may not be able to escape or find help.
Here are some examples of situations someone with agoraphobia might avoid altogether, would need a companion to be with them, or have to endure with intense anxiety or fear. Someone diagnosed with agoraphobia would have to be experiencing these fears for at least six months.At least two of these need to be present for a formal diagnosis:
- Using public transportation
- Being in open spaces, like parking lots, marketplaces, bridges
- Being in enclosed places, like shops, theaters
- Standing in line or being in a crowd
- Being outside of the home alone
What do I do?
Please remember, even if you have all or most of the symptoms I’ve listed here, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have Panic Disorder or Agoraphobia. Medical conditions can cause many of these symptoms, as can other psychiatric diagnoses (such as PTSD, OCD or social phobia).
First visit your medical doctor to rule out any physical causes. If there does not appear to be any physical or medical reason, visit a trained mental health professional near you for a formal diagnosis. All anxiety disorders are very treatable! If you are concerned, don’t do what your anxiety may be telling you to do, which is procrastinate. Do something, even if it is small, today! Even if you are house bound you can receive online or video-based therapy. I offer these kinds of therapy as well.
If the idea of a therapist seems too much, or you are sure you simply can’t afford it, consider getting one or more books that have been proven to be helpful. Here are some links to books that I highly recommend, and have been proven to work. The first is a book for virtually any kind of anxiety symptoms, the second and third links are specifically for panic and/or agoraphobia:
- The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook, by Edmund J Bourne
- Mastery of your Anxiety and Panic Workbook, by Barlow & Craske
- Don’t Panic, by Reid Wilson
Finally, visit some websites for more information and resources. It’s easy to find misinformation on the web, which is why I’ve personally selected these for you:
I hope this is helpful to you! Please don’t procrastinate doing something to help yourself. Please click here to learn more about anxiety treatment and my practice.