What is panic?

Understanding Panic

Before we can have a good understanding of what panic is, we have to understand fear.  Our bodies have a natural alarm system that protects us in times of danger.  For example, if you were to come across a dangerous animal, your body's alarm system would turn on and your body would respond accordingly - heart racing, breathing fast, sweating - all of these physiological symptoms alert you to the danger and help you to respond accordingly! You may have heard of "fight or flight" before and this occurs in times of fear.  You will either run for your life or physically defend yourself in fearful situations.

Sometimes people experience this intense fear at times when there is no actual danger, it's just a false alarm and it can happen when you least expect it.  Panic attacks are the result of these false alarms.

People often feel some physiological sensations when they are anxious about something; however, a panic attack is more intense than usual and can feel very out of control and scary and many times people do not know what is actually happening to them.


Panic Attack Symptoms

Not every one experiences all of these panic attack symptoms and some are more intense than others.  As you will see, many of the symptoms are what you would expect to experience in an actual dangerous situation.  Sometimes people believe they are experiencing a medical condition because the symptoms are so intense and many times people will present to an emergency department as a result.

Panic attack symptoms can include:

  • skipping, racing or pounding heart
  • sweating
  • trembling or shaking
  • shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • choking sensations
  • chest pain, pressure or discomfort
  • nausea, stomach problems or sudden diarrhea
  • dizziness, lightheaded, feeling faint
  • tingling or numbness in parts of your body
  • hot flashes or chills
  • feeling things around you are strange, unreal, detached or unfamiliar
  • thoughts of losing control or going crazy
  • fear of dying

Facts about Panic Attacks

  • Panic attacks are our body's 'fight-flight-or freeze' response to a situation in where there is no real danger
  • Panic attacks are harmless.  Remember, panic attacks are your body's alarm system and this is not designed to harm you.  Of course, it is scary and may feel like you're dying or going crazy, but you are not.
  • Panic attacks are brief, typically lasting only 5-10  minutes.  Many times I hear people say their panic attacks lasted for an hour or more, but this is likely just how long it felt, not how long it actually occurred.  Since panic attacks take a lot of your body's energy, they quickly run out of steam and therefore don't last very long.
  • Panic attacks are private experiences and usually no one else even knows you're having a panic attack.

Self-Help Strategies for Panic Disorder. Retrieved from www.anxietybc.com



Calm Breathing:

We tend to breathe faster when we are anxious and this can cause us to feel dizzy or lightheaded, which often makes us even more anxious!  Take slow, deep, regular breaths in through your nose and exhale through your mouth.  The goal of this is to make experiencing the panic attack a little easier, not to stop the panic attack... just ride it out.

Muscle Relaxation:

Learning to relax your body is another  helpful tool when experiencing a panic attack.  Practice tensing various  muscles in your body and then relaxing them.  Go through each muscle system in your body from the top of your head all the way to your toes.


Realistic Thinking

Another helpful tool is learning to identify the thoughts that can trigger or fuel panic attacks.  Identify what you are afraid of happening during a panic attack (i.e. "I'll go crazy" or "I'll have a heart attack.") and then focus on challenging these irrational thoughts.  For example, overestimating is when we believe that something that is highly unlikely is about to happen, such as dying or fainting during a panic attack.  Catastrophizing is when we imagine the worst possible thing is about to happen and we will not be able to deal with it, such as "everyone will laugh at me if I have a panic attack in class."

Challenging irrational thoughts takes practice, but it can be done and will in turn decrease anxiety and panic.



Facing Fears

One of the most important ways to manage anxiety and panic is to face your fears! In order to overcome panic you cannot avoid the things that make you uncomfortable or fearful.  For example, if you avoid anything that would cause your heart to race (i.e. running) you will have a hard time facing your fear of panic.  Try to repeatedly bring on the sensations you fear so they no longer make you anxious.   Also, if you avoid places or situations that make you anxious, face that fear! If you don't like going to crowded places, it's important to go there until your anxiety decreases in that situation.


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