What are Panic Attacks?

If you have ever had a panic attack, you know that this can be one of the scariest experiences there is, especially when you don't know what it is.  Many individuals who experience panic attacks will present at a hospital emergency room, sometimes repeatedly, afraid they are having heart attacks or other life-threatening emergencies.

The DSM-5 defines panic attacks as experiences characterized by four or more of the following symptoms:

  • Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
  • A feeling of choking
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Nausea or abdominal distress
  • Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint
  • Feelings of unreality (derealization) or being detached from oneself (depersonalization)
  • Fear of losing control or going crazy
  • Fear of dying
  • Numbness or tingling sensations (paresthesias)
  • Chills or hot flushes

The experience of fewer than four of these symptoms may be described as a limited-symptom panic attack, or more colloquially, an anxiety attack.

For many who have had a panic attack (or attacks), they start to live in fear that they'll have more. The experience of the attacks, coupled with the fear about them (which may also lead to a restriction or avoidance of everyday activities) can result in a diagnosis of panic disorder. But you don't have to live your life in fear.

THERAPY FOR Panic Attacks:

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is the treatment of choice for panic attacks and panic disorder. Gatewell's panic attack therapists are trained, and have extensive experience, in CBT, which they can employ to help you manage symptoms of panic and panic disorder. CBT involves challenging your ideas about the physical symptoms occurring with the attacks and working on tolerating these symptoms without avoiding the situations that cause them. In some cases, your therapist might help you gradually work to overcome any avoidance that has developed.

Counseling for panic will help you learn to cope with the attacks; developing confidence in the ability to cope with the attacks leads to reduced fear of them, which typically leads to a reduction in their frequency over time.  In some cases, consultation with a psychiatrist is recommended, and medication will be prescribed, either on an as-needed basis or for a more prolonged, but still temporary, period of time, until the panic attacks are under better control.