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September 2, 2014
by Marti Wormuth, MA

How Do I Recognize a Panic Attack?

September 2, 2014 04:55 by Marti Wormuth, MA  [About the Author]

What is a Panic Attack?

One terrifying and debilitating thing that many people have to deal with are panic attacks. There are a number of people throughout the world who are diagnosed with panic disorders, and may have to deal with the negative effects of panic attacks on a regular basis as a result of the disorder. Other people may have panic attacks as a side effect of a disorder, like anxiety or depression, because they are unable to deal with extreme amounts of stress; these people don't necessarily have a panic disorder, but suffer from the same sorts of panic attacks that those with disorders have to deal with too. Because of that, it's more important than ever for us to understand how panic attacks happen, what they are, why people suffer from them, and what is able to be done about them if we were ever in a situation where we encountered someone who was having a panic attack.

Panic attacks are incredibly frightening, and those who deal with them on a regular basis will tell you that it feels like they are going to die when they have one. They can be incredibly unpleasant, and the physical side effects can be overwhelming to the point that a person feels like they are having a heart attack. But why do people suffer from panic attacks? And what can we do in order to recognize what a panic attack is? In today's blog post, we're going to explore those questions in more detail so that we can learn how to work through them in a healthy way. 

Why Do People Have Panic Attacks?

There are a lot of reasons that people have panic attacks, but most of them are related to mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, and panic disorders. All of these can play a role in causing people to be more prone to panic attacks, but in some cases, people who don't even have these issues may have moments where they feel the extreme physical and emotional results of panicking. What brings this on? What causes the physical effects to occur in people, instead of just that feeling of nervousness and panic? There are actually several reasons people may have panic attacks, and they will differ based on the person who has the panic disorder or may be having a panic attack. 

First of all, a lot of people will have "triggers" that will set them off. These triggers can range from anything to a mention of a child, to dealing with some sort of illness, to hearing a certain sentence or word. Some people will have a panic attack if they are forced to interact with a person with which they have a negative history or a fear of. Triggers may be as simple as a word (as we just mentioned) or as complicated as a particular event that is related to something that happened in the past. Some triggers are even related to traumas. Either way, the "trigger" will make the person feel as if they are unable to take control of the situation. In those cases, Sometimes, it just takes extreme stress and an inability to function in a healthy manner, so your body reacts in this way and you are overwhelmed to the point of a physical and emotional reaction. No matter how it happens, panic attacks are incredibly unpleasant and honestly, a lot of people become very afraid when they have one because of the symptoms that they may be experiencing and feeling as a result. 

In some cases, the panic attacks come on because of past panic attacks. That sounds a little odd, but for people who have panic disorders, it is common to see them become reclusive or ill more often because they do not feel like they can cope with their daily life and the things that they have to do. They become afraid of having panic attacks, and the additional stress that may come upon them as a result of that fear will just make it that much worse and make it more likely for them to have a panic attack. It's a painful, frightening cycle for those who are suffering from disorders where panic attacks are common. 

There's an important thing to realize about panic attacks, as well. At first, a person may not be able to predict whether or not they're going to have a panic attack. As the issues with panic attacks continue on, however, the person becomes better able to know when they're going to happen and may be able to employ particular techniques in order to fend off the panic attack for a period of time until they can deal with the issue at hand. This takes time, of course, and this is why it is important for you to understand the symptoms so you can catch it while it is starting. 

How Do I Recognize A Panic Attack? 

So, of course, the question is, how do you recognize a panic attack? This is a difficult question because, honestly, no two panic attacks are the same. A panic attack that one person may have could be completely different than the panic attack that someone else is dealing with. There are some common threads of panic attacks though, and those are what we are going to look at and explore. Here are some of the most common symptoms of a panic attack, which you can use to help identify if you or someone you love is having a panic attack. 

Uncontrollable, irrational fear related to the panic attack or to the trigger that caused the panic attack to begin. The fear is perhaps the worst part of the whole thing. Some people who have panic disorders will live in fear that they will have another one, and frankly, that makes it that much more stressful for them to try to deal with on a regular basis. The fear can be related to anything, however. It could be of a person, it could be of a situation, it could be that you're afraid of losing control or even dying, but with a panic attack, there is always a spiral of fear that a person feels like they are unable to get under control in a healthy manner, making it that much more difficult to work with. There are sometimes reasons for this fear, but usually the fear is the basis of what is going on and what has to be addressed in order to cope with the panic attack correctly. In some cases, there may be no basis for the panic attack at all, which makes it that much worse for the person who is struggling with the panic attacks. Why am I freaking out for no reason? Am I going crazy? These thoughts make it spiral that much worse. 

Physical symptoms of panic and pain that may feel like they are dying. This is absolutely terrifying for someone that is suffering from panic attacks. There are a ton of physical symptoms that can go along with it, from chest pains, difficulty breathing, sweating or trembling, to feeling so much physical pain that you are literally unable to move your body. The severity of the pain depends on the person, and it is normally a result of the "fight, freeze, or flight" response that we have when we are experiencing fear. Our hearts will pound, our body will try to do something, but the panic is usually the result of freezing up and not being able to cope with it in a healthy way. Sometimes, these physical symptoms cause even more fear and make the spiral into panic that much worse, so it's important to keep the person safe and calm during the panic attack so that the descent doesn't occur as quickly. 

Inability to think straight or determine a logical path. Many times, people who are having panic attacks often cannot think straight. Their mind is full of fear and the "what if's" and because of that, they're going to have a hard time being able to understand how to come out of the panic attack in a healthy way. This is yet another reason the fear occurs. The person having the panic attack may feel as if they are "going crazy" or that they cannot deal with life in a healthy way. The loss of control, especially if there are other physical symptoms, makes it that much harder for them to get out of the panic attack because they're afraid of all the things that they are "losing" in the moment. Logic is totally gone because fear has clouded the mind, and panic has made it go running like the rabbit across your lawn. Bringing a person back from that is hard, but it can be done and should be done if someone is having a panic attack. Be calm and patient with them, and try to help them "come back to reality" instead of being lost in the midst of the panic that they feel. 

Uncontrollable emotional responses related to the panic. When you're afraid, how do you react? Some people will just hide - people who are having a panic attack may lock themselves into their room or their home out of fear of coming out. Some people will cry uncontrollably or scream with absolutely no purpose behind the screams - people who are having panic attacks may do that too. Think of the emotional responses that you've had to normal, everyday fear and multiply it by a very large number and you've got the feelings that people who are having panic attacks deal with. They may say things that they don't mean, or cry uncontrollably, or react in another way, but remember - they're so lost in the panic that they don't really know what is going on. Being there for them and keeping them safe while they're freaking out is one of the most important things that you can do, because that means that they will be better able to get a grip as soon as their mind starts clearing up some. As long as they are not threatening to harm themselves or others as a result, they may just have to ride through the pain for a bit to get through it effectively. 

If you or someone you love is suffering from panic attacks on a regular basis, then you will want to try and find treatment in order to work with them through these painful, frightening experiences. Panic attacks can be very difficult to deal with, but professional help can assist you with what you need in order to thrive and live a life that is relatively panic attack free. Check out the resources here on the site to find a therapist near you that can help you learn how to manage them in a healthy and effective manner. Don't let panic attacks control your life - learn healthy ways to cope and live the life that you deserve to live. 

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About the Author

Marti Wormuth, MA Marti Wormuth, MA

Marti has a Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology and a Master’s in Communication Studies. Her favorite activities include reading, playing games, and hanging out with the students at her church. Marti volunteers with the youth ministry at her church as a teacher and mentor. Because of this, she recently started another degree, her graduate certificate in student ministries. She considers her current graduate work to be a stepping stone to becoming a youth pastor or a published author.

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