First off, panic attacks are very common and most people will experience at least one in their lifetime. That being said, they are a terrifying experience, especially the first time they happen. The most important thing to know about panic attacks is that they are almost always triggered by totally normal body sensations that are misread by the person as a sign that something really bad is happening to them.
Expert advice from our partner ChickRx.
Q: The other day, I suddenly stopped being able to breathe properly, my heart was racing, and I thought I was going to pass out. Is that a panic attack? How can I make sure I don't get one again?
First off, panic attacks are very common and most people will experience at least one in their lifetime. That being said, they are a terrifying experience, especially the first time they happen. The most important thing to know about panic attacks is that they are almost always triggered by totally normal body sensations that are misread by the person as a sign that something really bad is happening to them. If you are "stressed" or anxious, you are more likely to misread your body sensations and experience a panic attack than someone who is calm and relaxed.
A common scenario: You may be a healthy young person and perhaps experiencing a period of elevated stress during your life. Possibly while not doing anything out of the ordinary, you suddenly notice your own heart rhythm. Maybe it seems to be going a bit more quickly than usual or you noticed a skipped beat, both of which are normal and harmless. You then begin to have worried thoughts that this is a sign that something's wrong, which causes your body to start releasing adrenalin. This "fight or flight" hormone is triggered in any fear state, whether the danger is real or imagined. To create as much strength as possible, your heart rate rises to deliver maximum blood flow to the arms and legs and you begin to breath quickly to deliver increased oxygen to your muscles. Your pupils widen to increase alertness and allow you to see as much of your surroundings as possible. In creating these bodily reactions, adrenalin also produces "side effects" like light headedness, racing heart, chest tightness, shortness of breath, unusual visual changes, and feeling out-of-your-body or unreal, among others.
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So while you can see how adrenalin would be useful in confronting a real danger, its effects can be really scary when you aren't confronting a real danger. The effects of adrenalin can also cause more fear, which leads to more adrenalin surges and further increases your heart and breathing rates. This panic cycle can be intense, but it's usually limited to 20 minutes or less and its effects on the body are typically harmless.
It's extremely common for first or second time panic sufferers, convinced they're having a heart attack or stroke, to visit the local emergency room, where they're almost always reassured that there's nothing physically wrong and are typically sent home with a sedative to calm their nerves. For most people, knowing that nothing is physically wrong is enough to prevent a panic attack from occurring again.
But for a smaller percentage of panic attack sufferers (about 1.5 to 5 percent of the population), this may not be enough to stop the attacks. There are those who suffer from an anxiety disorder characterized by recurrent and seemingly out-of-control panic attacks, called Panic Disorder. These people tend to be over-thinkers, perfectionists, and the like who aren't satisfied with an easy answer. Individuals with Panic Disorder experience intense fear and dread that they're dying or going crazy with each panic attack. They begin to fear having panic attacks between episodes and alter their lifestyles to try to prevent them from occurring. Panic Disorder is a psychiatric condition that may need to be addressed by psychotherapy or psychiatric medications.
For others, though, what seems like a panic attack could be a physical issue like an asthma attack or heart rhythm abnormality, so make sure your physician has performed a general exam on you to confirm your "panic attack" may not be something more serious.
If what you experienced was in fact a panic attack, and the attacks persist, this may indicate an elevated stress level or anxiety disorder that should be addressed. Whether you experienced a normal panic attack or you suffer from Panic Disorder, you should focus on minimizing your overall stress level to decrease the likelihood of another panic attack. Get at least 20 minutes of cardiovascular exercise three times a week, decrease caffeine and alcohol intake and regularly sleep seven to eight hours a night. In some cases, your doctor may also recommend psychotherapy or medications to minimize the attacks and teach you how to deescalate and prevent them.