“I feel like I’m going crazy…..”
“I must be having a heart attack…..”
“I’m choking and I can’t catch my breath…..”
“It came upon me by surprise. I heard my heart pounding so loudly that I thought it burst out of my chest like in that movie ALIENS…”
“I began shaking like a junkie in withdrawal…”
If you’ve ever felt like this, you’re not alone.
The statements above are the some of the most common symptoms of a panic attack.
Panic and anxiety attacks affect over 4,000,000 people in the U.S. alone (That’s 5% of the total adult population!).
Many people who experience their first panic attack find themselves at hospital emergency rooms……or at doctors’ offices — prepared to hear the worst.
And unfortunately, hearing that they are “fine,” can actually makes things worse…
When they don’t hear that they’ve suffered a life-threatening situation (such as a heart attack), this news may actually cause an increase in their anxiety and making them prone to more panic attacks.
Panic attacks and anxiety disorders have an abundance of symptoms that vary from person to person and that makes it so much harder for your doctor to pinpoint.
Because the symptoms of panic are very real, the anxiety is so traumatizing, and the whole experience is new and strange, a panic attack is one of the worst experiences a person can have.
On top of the attack, there is always the nagging fear, “When will this happen to me again?”
So what is a panic attack?
Panic attacks are periods of intense fear or apprehension that are of sudden onset and of variable duration from minutes to hours. Panic attacks usually begin abruptly, may reach a peak within 10 minutes, but may continue for much longer if the sufferer had the attack triggered by a situation from which they are not able to escape.
In panic attacks that continue unabated, and are triggered by a situation from which the sufferer desires to escape, some sufferers may make frantic efforts to escape, which may be violent if others attempt to contain the sufferer. Some panic attacks can subside on their own over the next several hours.
What causes a panic attack?
Panic is not necessarily brought on by any one recognizable circumstance, and can stem from a single event or a culmination of multiple triggers . That is why panic attacks are so hard to pinpoint and often times the attacks just come “out of the blue.”
In essence, a panic attack can occur to anyone at any time, though some are more prone to it than others…
- Long-term, predisposing causes — heredity. Panic disorder has been found to run in families, and this may mean that inheritance plays a strong role in determining who will get it. However, many people who have no family history of the disorder develop it. The onset of panic disorder usually occurs in early adulthood, although it may appear at any age. It occurs more frequently in women and often in people with above average intelligence. Various twin studies where one identical twin has an anxiety disorder have reported an incidence ranging from 31 to 88 percent of the other twin also having an anxiety disorder diagnosis. Environmental factors such as an overly cautious view of the world expressed by parents and cumulative stress over time have been found to be correlated with panic attacks.
- Biological causes — obsessive compulsive disorder, post traumatic stress disorder,hypoglycemia, hyperthyroidism, Wilson’s disease, mitral valve prolapse,pheochromocytoma, and inner ear disturbances (labyrinthitis). Parasitic infection can cause psychiatric symptoms.
- Phobias — People will often experience panic attacks as a direct result of exposure to aphobic object or situation.
- Short-term triggering causes — Significant personal loss, including an emotional attachment to a romantic partner, life transitions, severe emotional distress, significant life change and, as seen below, stimulants such as caffeine or nicotine, can act as triggers.
- Maintaining causes — Avoidance of panic provoking situations or environments, anxious/negative self-talk (“what-if” thinking), mistaken beliefs (“these symptoms are harmful and/or dangerous”), withheld feelings, lack of assertiveness.
- Lack of assertiveness — A growing body of evidence supports the idea that those who suffer from panic attacks engage in a passive style of communication or interactions with others. This communication style, while polite and respectful, is also characteristically un-assertive. This un-assertive way of communicating seems to contribute to panic attacks while being frequently present in those that are afflicted with panic attacks.
- Medications — Sometimes, panic attacks may be a listed side effect of medications such as methylphenidate or even fluoroquinolone-type antibiotics. These may be a temporary side effect, only occurring when a patient first starts a medication, or could continue occurring even after the patient is accustomed to the drug, which likely would warrant a medication change in either dosage or type of drug. Nearly the entire SSRI class of antidepressants can cause increased anxiety in the beginning of use. It is not uncommon for inexperienced users to have panic attacks while weaning on or off the medication, especially ones prone to anxiety.
- Alcohol, medication or drug withdrawal — Various substances both prescribed and unprescribed can cause panic attacks to develop as part of their withdrawal syndrome orrebound effect. Alcohol withdrawal and benzodiazepine withdrawal are the most well known to cause these effects as a rebound withdrawal symptom of their tranquillizing properties.
- Hyperventilation syndrome — Breathing from the chest may cause overbreathing, exhaling excessive carbon dioxide in relation to the amount of oxygen in one’s bloodstream.Hyperventilation syndrome can cause respiratory alkalosis and hypocapnia. This syndrome often involves prominent mouth breathing as well. This causes a cluster of symptoms including rapid heart beat, dizziness, and lightheadedness which can trigger panic attacks.
- Situationally bound panic attacks — Associating certain situations with panic attacks, due to experiencing one in that particular situation, can create a cognitive or behavioral predisposition to having panic attacks in certain situations (situationally bound panic attacks). It is a form of classical conditioning. Examples of this include college, work, or deployment. See PTSD
- Pharmacological triggers — Certain chemical substances, mainly stimulants but also certain depressants, can either contribute pharmacologically to a constellation of provocations, and thus trigger a panic attack or even a panic disorder, or directly induce one.This includes caffeine, amphetamine, alcohol and many more. Some sufferers of panic attacks also report phobias of specific drugs or chemicals, that thus have a merelypsychosomatic effect, thereby functioning as drug triggers by nonpharmacological means.
The above is a just a short list of some of the most common causes of a panic attack, but by no means is it all inclusive…
In a survival situation anyone prone to a panic attack will be saturated with many of these conditions. That same survival situation can cause even most stoic and level headed person to lose it. If you are in a group of people (especially if you are trying to remain unnoticed) having some one suffer from a panic attack can cause a devastating impact on your entire group.
Regardless of if you are surviving alone or in a group, you should always know the symptoms and how to deal with them.
Below are some of the most common symptoms of a panic attack:
- a racing pulse
- dizziness and lightheadedness
- feeling that “I can’t catch my breath”
- chest pains or a “heaviness” in the chest
- hot flashes or chills
- tingling in the extremities (hands, feet, legs, arms)
- jumpiness, trembling, twitching muscles
- sweaty palms, flushed face
- fear of losing control
- having a heart attack or stroke
- fear of dying
- fear of going crazy
Knowing the symptoms is only the first step to getting ahead of panic. You need to understand how to deal with it when it hits.
Now, there are many different ways to treat anxiety through the standard medical route including prescription medications. But as I am not a doctor I can’t speak to these. (not to mention the fact that I have seen the commercials in which the listing off of potential side effects is far longer than the listing of the benefits of the medication..) And in all reality, in any survival situation, access to and dependence on these medications can lead to a whole new can of worms.
A Survival Situation, emergency, crisis,or whatever you want to call it, will instantly through your body into a “flight, fight, or freeze” mode. This reaction is the reason that our ancestors survived and it still helps people survive terrible situations every day. But there is a limit to the effectiveness of panic and anything over that threshold will put you into even more danger.
I don’t care if you are a man, woman, or child; a panic attack is a very real and very terrible experience. Telling someone to “man up” or “tough it out” is not the answer.
I have given you the causes, symptoms, and a great resource that highlights how you can approach this situation.