The Ultimate Guide to Understanding Panic Attacks


Have you ever felt out-of-the-blue, overwhelming fear and anxiety that grips your whole being, making you think you might lose control or even pass out? As bewildering and terrifying as these experiences might be, they are not uncommon. They’re known as panic attacks, and they are an exaggerated response of the body’s normal defense mechanism against stress or danger.

For some, a panic attack might be a one-time episode triggered by an extremely stressful event. But for many others — those who we see here at DBT of South Jersey, these panic attacks occur unprovoked and repeatedly, making everyday activities like traveling, attending social events, or even simply going to sleep, nerve-wracking and difficult. Often, this leads to a sense of insecurity and fear of the next attack, a condition recognized as panic disorder.

At the end of the day, panic attacks and panic disorder can be truly disabling, standing in the way of an independent, fulfilling life. In the face of this disruptive mental health condition, it’s important to arm yourself with correct knowledge about what happens during a panic attack, why they occur, and how they can be managed.

Key Points About Panic Attacks:

  • Panic attacks involve intense fear and discomfort that peaks within minutes.
  • Symptoms include accelerated heart rate, sweating, trembling, feelings of impending doom or death, and hyperventilation.
  • Panic attacks can occur unexpectedly or in response to a trigger.
  • If recurrent and severe, panic attacks can lead to a mental health condition known as panic disorder.
  • Management strategies include self-help techniques, and if necessary, professional treatments like psychotherapy and medication.

Infographic about Panic Attacks - panic attack infographic pillar-4-steps

This infographic provides a quick overview of the key information about panic attacks, including signs, causes, and helpful coping strategies. Explore the rest of the guide to gain a thorough understanding of panic attacks and how to manage them.

Understanding the Nature of Panic Attacks

Panic attacks, as our expert Shaelene Lauriano Kite at DBT of South Jersey explains, are sudden episodes characterized by intense fear and anxiety. These attacks typically include physical sensations such as a racing heartbeat, trembling, shortness of breath, and muscle tension. They can last from a few minutes to half an hour, with the emotional impact often lingering for hours afterwards.

The Biological Mechanism Behind Panic Attacks

To fully grasp what a panic attack is, it’s crucial to understand the biological mechanism the body undergoes during an episode. When our body senses immediate danger, our brain activates the ‘flight-or-fight’ response, flooding our system with various chemicals, including adrenaline. As a result, physiological changes like accelerated heart rate and breathing occur, preparing our bodies for a potential threat.

Panic attacks occur when this ‘flight-or-fight’ response is triggered without a clear danger present. This incongruity can lead to experiencing the symptoms of a panic attack in seemingly harmless and stress-free situations, such as while watching television or even sleeping.

The Role of Stress and Excitement in Triggering Panic Attacks

While the exact causes of panic attacks can be elusive, research indicates that prolonged periods of stress or intense physical reactions can trigger an episode. For instance, over breathing, high-intensity exercise, or excessive caffeine intake can prime the body to activate the ‘flight-or-fight’ response inappropriately.

Life changes, such as the death of a loved one or the birth of a child, can also increase the risk of panic attacks. Additionally, certain lifestyle factors like smoking or excessive caffeine intake can contribute to the onset of these episodes. It’s crucial to note that everyone reacts differently to stressors, and triggers can vary significantly from person to person.

The Unpredictability of Panic Attacks

One of the distinguishing traits of panic attacks is their unpredictability. They often occur unexpectedly and may not be linked to any external threat, making them particularly distressing. This unpredictability can compound the fear and anxiety surrounding panic attacks, leading some individuals to avoid situations they fear may trigger an episode. This fear of the unknown, coupled with the physical and emotional discomfort of a panic attack, can significantly impact a person’s quality of life.

Understanding the nature of panic attacks can be a crucial step towards managing them. At DBT of South Jersey, we offer a range of therapies, including psychotherapy, stress management, and relaxation techniques, to help individuals navigate and overcome panic attacks.

In the next section, we will delve into the various symptoms of panic attacks to help you better recognize and respond to them when they occur.

Recognizing the Symptoms of Panic Attacks

To manage panic attacks effectively, it’s crucial to recognize their symptoms. Panic attacks manifest through a combination of both physical and emotional symptoms, which can be overwhelming. Understanding these symptoms can help you respond more effectively when they occur.

Physical Symptoms: Trembling, Hyperventilation, and More

The physical symptoms of a panic attack can be quite intense, often mimicking those of a heart attack. People experiencing a panic attack may have an accelerated heart rate and difficulties in breathing, which could include shortness of breath. Other physical symptoms may include trembling or shaking, sweating, hot flushes, a feeling of constriction in the chest, and tense muscles. You may also experience lightheadedness, dizziness, and a dry mouth. In some instances, there could be tingling and chills, particularly in the arms and hands, and even nausea or abdominal distress.

Emotional Symptoms: Fear, Dread, and a Sense of Impending Doom

In addition to the physical symptoms, panic attacks also come with a range of disturbing emotional symptoms. These can include heightened vigilance for danger, anxious and irrational thinking, and a strong feeling of dread, danger, or foreboding. During a panic attack, people may express fears of going mad, losing control, or dying. They may also experience feelings of unreality and detachment from the environment.

The emotional symptoms of panic attacks can be just as debilitating as the physical ones, potentially leading to avoidance behavior and significant distress.

The Duration and Intensity of Panic Attacks

Panic attacks can vary in duration and intensity. A typical panic attack can last from a few minutes to half an hour, but the physical and emotional effects can linger for hours afterward. The intensity of the symptoms can also fluctuate within this period, reaching a peak and then gradually subsiding.

It’s also important to note that panic attacks can occur frequently and unexpectedly, often without any apparent external trigger. This unpredictability is one of the key characteristics of panic attacks and can contribute to the anxiety and fear associated with them.

Recognizing these symptoms is the first step towards managing and treating panic attacks. At DBT of South Jersey, we strive to equip individuals with the knowledge and tools necessary to understand and cope with their panic attacks. Our professional therapists are experienced in guiding individuals through their panic symptoms and helping them find effective coping strategies. In the next section, we will explore the difference between panic attacks and anxiety attacks, further enhancing your understanding of these phenomena.

Panic Attack vs. Anxiety Attack: Understanding the Difference

While the terms ‘panic attack’ and ‘anxiety attack’ are often used interchangeably, they refer to different experiences and are characterized by different symptoms and intensity levels. Understanding the distinction between these two can be crucial for recognizing what you’re experiencing and seeking appropriate help.

A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause. As mentioned earlier, panic attacks can be incredibly frightening and can happen unexpectedly, sometimes even during sleep. They are typically brief, lasting anywhere from a few minutes to half an hour, but the physical and emotional effects can be felt for hours later. Recurring panic attacks can lead to panic disorder, a type of anxiety disorder.

On the other hand, an anxiety attack usually refers to a longer period of persistent worry and fear, often in response to specific stressors. The symptoms of an anxiety attack may be less intense than those of a panic attack and may build up gradually over time. While ‘panic attack’ is a diagnosable condition with clear criteria defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), ‘anxiety attack’ is not. It’s more of a descriptive term for a feeling of overwhelming worry or fear.

To help you distinguish between the two, let’s outline some of their key differences:

  • Onset: Panic attacks are abrupt and intense, often coming on suddenly without warning. Anxiety attacks, on the other hand, are usually a response to a perceived stressor or threat, and build up gradually.
  • Duration: Panic attacks typically reach their peak within 10 minutes and rarely last more than an hour. Anxiety attacks can last for much longer periods, sometimes even for days.
  • Symptoms: Both can cause similar physical symptoms like a racing heart, shortness of breath, and dizziness. However, panic attacks often come with additional symptoms like a fear of dying or losing control, and feelings of detachment from the environment.

At DBT of South Jersey, we understand that dealing with either of these experiences can be distressing and overwhelming. Our therapists are trained to help you understand and manage your symptoms, and develop effective coping mechanisms tailored to your specific needs. Whether you’re dealing with panic attacks, anxiety attacks, or both, we are here to support you on your journey towards better mental health.

The Link Between Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder

In some cases, a panic attack may be a one-time occurrence. However, if you’re experiencing frequent panic attacks and there’s no apparent trigger, you might be diagnosed with a panic disorder.

The Frequency and Triggers of Panic Attacks in Panic Disorder

A panic disorder is characterized by the occurrence of panic attacks at unpredictable times. These attacks can happen several times a day or only a few times a year. The unpredictability is one of the most challenging aspects of a panic disorder. Not knowing when a panic attack might occur can lead to constant worry and significant changes in your lifestyle to avoid situations where an attack might occur.

Specific places, situations, or activities might seem to trigger panic attacks, like stressful appointments. But in reality, these attacks often seem to come out of the blue, which is a central feature of panic disorder.

The Diagnosis of Panic Disorder

At DBT of South Jersey, we begin the process of diagnosis by discussing your history and conducting a physical exam to rule out any unrelated physical problems causing your symptoms. We may then refer you to a mental health professional for a more in-depth assessment. The diagnosis is usually made by a mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, or clinical social worker.

The Prevalence of Panic Disorder: Statistics and Demographics

Panic disorder often begins in late teens or early adulthood. It’s interesting to note that women are more likely than men to develop panic disorder. However, remember that panic disorder can affect anyone, regardless of age or gender. It’s a common condition, and it’s important to know that you’re not alone if you’re dealing with it.

On a final note, it’s also common for people with panic disorder to experience periods with few or no panic attacks, but have lots of attacks at other times. This can make the condition feel even more unpredictable and stressful. But remember, we at DBT of South Jersey are here to help you navigate this challenging condition and strive towards better mental health.

In the next section, we’ll discuss how to manage and treat panic attacks and panic disorder. You’ll learn about self-help techniques, professional treatments, and how lifestyle changes can help manage your symptoms. You’re not alone in this. With the right help and support, you can learn to manage your symptoms and lead a fulfilling life.

Managing and Treating Panic Attacks

Living with panic attacks can be overwhelming, but there are strategies and treatments available to help manage and reduce the frequency of these episodes. By combining self-help techniques, professional treatments, and lifestyle changes, you can regain control and live a more balanced life.

Self-Help Techniques for Panic Attacks

During a panic attack, your body goes into fight-or-flight mode. To bring yourself back to a calmer state, you can use various self-help techniques. Deep breathing can help reduce hyperventilation, which often accompanies panic attacks. Grounding techniques, such as focusing on your surroundings or repeating a mantra, can also help bring you back to reality and away from the overwhelming sensations of panic.

One technique shared by a therapist on our team, who experienced her first panic attack, is the practice of physical exercises like jumping jacks or running up and down the stairs. Focusing on the physical exertion can help divert attention away from panic and towards the immediate physical activity. This method can help dissipate the panic and restore a sense of calm.

Professional Treatments: Psychotherapy and Medication

Psychotherapy, specifically cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), is a common treatment for panic disorder. CBT focuses on changing the thought patterns that trigger panic attacks. Another method used in CBT is exposure therapy, which involves gradually exposing you to the sensations of a panic attack to lessen your fear of them.

In addition to psychotherapy, medication can also be effective in treating panic disorder. Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications can help manage the symptoms. However, medication should be taken under the supervision of a healthcare provider due to potential side effects and the risk of dependency.

At DBT of South Jersey, we offer individualized treatments for panic disorder, combining both psychotherapy and medication management.

The Role of Lifestyle in Managing Panic Attacks

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle can play a significant role in managing panic attacks. Regular exercise, a balanced diet, and adequate sleep can improve your overall physical health, making you better equipped to handle stress. Avoiding stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine can also help, as these substances can trigger or exacerbate panic attacks.

Activities such as yoga can be beneficial, as it combines physical movement with mindful awareness, helping to reduce tension and promote a sense of calm. In fact, we offer private yoga classes to support our clients in their journey towards healing and balance.

Lastly, seeking support from trusted friends and family can provide emotional assistance. There’s no need to navigate this journey alone.

At DBT of South Jersey, we’re here to help you understand, manage, and treat your panic attacks, providing the guidance and tools you need to live a more balanced life.

Supporting Someone with Panic Attacks or Panic Disorder

Supporting a loved one experiencing panic attacks or panic disorder is a crucial part of their journey towards better mental health. This involves educating yourself about panic attacks, maintaining open communication, and knowing when to seek professional help.

Educating Yourself About Panic Attacks

Understanding what your loved one is going through is the first step to offering meaningful support. Familiarize yourself with the symptoms, triggers, and treatments of panic attacks. This provides you with the knowledge to handle situations when panic attacks happen and to empathize with your loved one’s experience. You can find resources to educate yourself on reputable websites like the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) or DBT of South Jersey blog.

Open Communication and Understanding

Encourage your loved one to talk about their experiences and feelings. Open and non-judgmental conversations can provide emotional relief and reduce feelings of isolation. It’s important to listen more and advise less. Validate their feelings and experiences, even if they seem irrational to you.

Your loved one’s experience with panic attacks can be quite distressing, as described by a therapist from DBT of South Jersey, who experienced her first panic attack. It underscores the importance of understanding and empathy when supporting someone who is dealing with panic attacks.

When to Seek Professional Help

If your loved one’s panic attacks become frequent or significantly affect their quality of life, it may be time to seek professional help. Health professionals like those at DBT of South Jersey can provide treatment options including psychotherapy and medication.

Professional help is not just for crisis situations. Early intervention can prevent the progression of panic disorder and improve overall quality of life. Encourage your loved one to seek help and assure them that there’s no shame in doing so.

Supporting someone with panic attacks or panic disorder may be challenging, but it’s also a powerful opportunity to show your love and care. With education, open communication, and knowing when to seek professional help, you can be a strong pillar of support for your loved one.

Conclusion: Living with Panic Attacks and Finding Balance

Living with panic attacks can be challenging, but remember, you’re not alone. Many people experience panic attacks and are able to manage their symptoms and lead fulfilling lives. As we’ve discussed, panic attacks are a biological response to stress or excitement, and they can be unpredictable. However, understanding this can be a powerful tool in managing your panic attacks and finding balance in your life.

Everyone’s experience with panic attacks is unique. Some people might experience them once and never again, while others might have them regularly. The symptoms can vary from person to person, and they can last anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes, or longer. There’s no right or wrong way to experience a panic attack, and there’s no shame in seeking help if you need it.

At DBT of South Jersey, we understand the difficulties and fears that come with experiencing panic attacks. We’re here to support you through this journey. Through professional treatments like psychotherapy and medication, as well as self-help techniques, we can help you manage your symptoms and regain control of your life.

Don’t underestimate the power of a healthy lifestyle in managing panic attacks. Regular exercise, a balanced diet, and adequate sleep can go a long way in helping to reduce the frequency and intensity of panic attacks. Additionally, having a strong support network of family and friends who understand your condition can be invaluable.

Finally, remember that you are a strong person with the potential to turn your mental health crisis into a mental health triumph. Each step you take towards understanding and managing your panic attacks is a victory. And each day you live with your panic attacks, you’re proving to yourself just how resilient and capable you are.

If you’re experiencing panic attacks and need help, don’t hesitate to contact us. We offer a range of services, including group therapy and couples and family therapy, to support you in your journey towards wellness.

Mental Health Support - panic attack

It’s okay to ask for help. We’re here to support you. You’re not alone in this journey, and with the right support and treatment, you can navigate your way through panic attacks and find balance in your life.

For more insights and resources related to panic attacks, explore our blog.


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