What are Panic Attacks?
As a Social Worker and Psychotherapist I provide both Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Exposure Therapy for panic attacks and anxiety. Over the years I have met with many individuals who come to see me after they ended up in a hospital emergency department with feelings of panic. Time after time they would report they went to the hospital in fear they were actually having a heart attack, only to find out that they were experiencing anxiety. One of the first steps to treating anxiety is recognizing the symptoms associated with it.
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Panic attacks are brief periods of overwhelming fear or anxiety. The intensity of a panic attack goes well beyond normal anxiety, and can include a number of physical symptoms. During panic attacks, people often fear that they are having a heart attack, they cannot breathe, or they are dying.
Symptoms of a Panic Attack
Note: A panic attack does not need to include all of the symptoms listed below.
Pounding or racing heart
Trembling or shaking
Fear of “going crazy”
Feeling of being detached from reality
Sense of terror, or impending doom or death
Chest pain or discomfort
Fear of dying
Panic Attack Facts
Panic attacks may feel scary, but they don’t actually cause physical harm. The most common fears associated with panic attacks (having a heart attack or fainting) are not actually a threat. Panic attacks are usually brief but intense. The symptoms of panic typically peak within 10 minutes, and end within 30 minutes. However, some lingering symptoms can last over an hour.
Panic attacks can seem to occur randomly, or they can be closely linked to a specific source of anxiety such as driving, crowded places, or simply leaving home. Panic disorder occurs when a person has frequent worry or fear of future panic attacks, or when they change their behavior in to avoid attacks (such as avoiding a feared situation).
How are Panic Attacks Treated?
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a common and well-supported treatment for panic attacks and panic disorder. CBT works by identifying and changing unhealthy thinking patterns that trigger panic attacks. The benefits of CBT can be long-lasting. I also use Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to help treat anxiety which is considered a type of CBT.
During exposure therapy, the patient is intentionally exposed to the symptoms of panic in a safe environment. As exposure continues, the symptoms become more familiar and less terrifying. Exposure therapy may also involve gradual exposure to feared situations.
Medication for panic attacks can act as a short-term treatment for severe cases. Because medication does not treat the underlying issues that cause panic disorders, it should be accompanied by another form of treatment such as psychotherapy.
Much like how muscles become stronger with exercise, the body’s relaxation response can be improved with practice. Frequent use of relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, and progressive muscle relaxation can be helpful to manage anxiety and panic.
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