Do you sometimes find yourself suddenly hyperventilating and experiencing a rapid heartbeat for no apparent reason? If so, you may be having a panic attack. Despite the fact that panic attacks can happen to anyone at any time, women are prone to experiencing panic attacks twice as much as men.
Furthermore, it is estimated that half of panic attacks occur in individuals who are younger than 24 years of age. Moreover, panic attacks affect approximately 2.4 million people in the United States every year. This means that, if you are experiencing them, you are not alone.
Panic attacks can be very intimidating, particularly if you have never experienced one before. However, there are several types of treatments available for people who are suffering from them on a regular basis. Therefore, if you think that you may be experiencing panic attacks, you must consult with a doctor to receive help and a proper diagnosis. The following sections detail important specifics about panic attacks, including how to identify them and what to do in order to treat this issue.
How to Identify a Panic Attack
At some time in their lives, most people have experienced a feeling of panic due to an external factor, such as being locked out of their houses, missing an important appointment or experiencing some form of unwanted confrontation at work or in school. Panic attacks, however, often happen for no clear reason at all. In addition, panic attacks tend to be much more severe than casual moments of feeling nervous or afraid. Overall, this mental state brings in a rush of intense anxiety along with physical symptoms of ill-being. If you have suffered from panic attacks, you are aware that they can be frightening experiences. Common symptoms include:
- A racing or irregular heartbeat
- A ringing in your ears
- Feeling a choking sensation
- Tingling fingers
Certain individuals experience such strong panic attacks that they are led to believe that they are having heart attacks. As such, severe symptoms of panic attacks include feeling like you are barely able to breathe, as well as becoming so lightheaded that you are unable to sit up. On the other hand, the length of a panic attack may vary depending on your medical history and where you experience it. Some panic attacks can last for a few minutes, while others may last as long as 20 or 30 minutes. Fortunately, the vast majority of U.S. residents only have one or two panic attacks in the course of their lives. However, if you feel them on a regular basis, you may have a condition known as panic disorder.
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What causes panic attacks?
Panic attacks occur when your breathing quickens due to your body attempting to take in more oxygen, at the same time that your body releasing hormones such as adrenaline. This combination of occurrences causes your muscles to tense and your heart to beat quicker. More specifically, however, the exact cause of this happening in the first place is still unknown. Overall, there are certain common factors that are thought to play a role in causing panic attacks, such as:
- Major stress
- Temperaments of a highly sensitive nature
- Specific changes in the functionality of parts of the brain
How do you diagnose panic attacks?
If you are worried about regularly experiencing panic attacks, you must see your doctor. In general, only a health professional will be able to determine whether you are having panic attacks, if you have panic disorder or if you have another condition. For example, thyroid or heart problems have been known for resembling the symptoms associated with panic attacks. As such, your doctor will be able to perform a blood test in order to first rule out other possible conditions.
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Your doctor may instruct you to complete a physical examination and a psychological evaluation. After discussing your symptoms, your psychological examination will prompt you to talk about the following:
- Situations you find stressful
- Situations you normally try to avoid
- Relationship issues
- Your family history
- Drugs or alcohol habits and/or abuse
What treatment is available for panic attacks?
There are two main treatments for panic attacks: psychotherapy and medication. These treatments can help towards reducing the frequency and intensity of panic attacks happening, as well as improve your overall daily functionality.
However, it is up to your doctor to determine whether one, both or neither of these treatments is suitable for you. As such, the treatment you are offered can depend on factors such as the severity of your condition as well as your medical history.
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More often than not, the first course of treatment for panic attacks is psychotherapy. This method aims to help you understand the cause of your panic attacks and learn how to cope with them. Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is one form of psychotherapy, and is often the most recommended option for this type of issue. As a general rule, CBT allows you to learn that panic attacks are not dangerous, despite what you may feel while experiencing them. A therapist will also work with you to regularly recreate your panic attack symptoms in a safe manner. Studies show that, after realizing that panic attacks are not threatening, they tend to occur less regularly and feel less intense. Hopefully, with continued psychotherapy, panic attacks can stop altogether for a patient. For some individuals, symptoms are decreased significantly or even disappear within several weeks. For others, however, it may take several months.
Furthermore, medications can also serve as effective forms of treatment. In most cases, medication can help to reduce and manage your symptoms. Overall, there are several types of medications that are prescribed for panic attacks, such as:
- Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors – These antidepressants are usually the first type of medication prescribed for patients who regularly experience panic attacks.
- Serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors – These other types of antidepressants are effective in reducing panic attacks.
- Benzodiazepines – These sedatives act as depressants for your nervous system. However, they can become addictive, and thus are typically only used for a short period of time. In general, these medications are not recommended for individuals with a history of alcohol or substance abuse.
In any case, you are able to take certain measures to help ease your panic attacks. For instance, going to a support group and sharing your problems with others can help you to deal with your panic attacks. Generally, it is also advisable for you to avoid tobacco, coffee, alcohol and any recreational drugs, as these can make panic attacks feel much worse. Moreover, there are relaxation techniques that can be implemented to help you, such as yoga and breathing exercises. These activities, which involve relaxing your muscles and breathing deeply, can do wonders to help you overcome your panic attacks.