If you have ever had an actual panic attack then you probably started reading this because you NEVER want to have another one. Panic attacks are terrifying; like what we imagine a heart attack to feel like. I would argue that many actual heart attacks do not feel as bad as most panic attacks do. Panic attacks are truly horrible yet so common. How do you make them go away? In order to accomplish that, you must first understand how they work.
Q: What exactly is a Panic Attack?
A panic attack is an abrupt, intense escalation of anxiety that overwhelms the affected individual with disabling physical and psychological symptoms. The symptoms include a racing heart, difficulty breathing, a sense of loss of control, shaking, light-headedness, sweating, intense fear, nausea, tunnel vision, and a sense of impending doom. They can be triggered or just come on spontaneously. They can be so bad that anticipatory anxiety can develop, with a persisting worry of when the next attack may occur. Anticipatory anxiety can lead to avoidant behavior, with an affected individual starting to avoid situations that they associate with an attack. This is why many people cannot use elevators, go into stores, or drive on the highway. The world of an affected person can shrink quickly, which is why proper diagnosis and treatment is so important.
Q: How can I best handle a Panic Attack if I get one?
Medications are not the best way of controlling a panic attack that has already started because they take too long to be absorbed into the bloodstream. Breathing in and out of a small paper bag works faster to subdue an active eruption of anxiety. This technique, known as “carbon dioxide rebreathing”, works by normalizing the pH of the blood that would otherwise have risen too high from breathing off too much carbon dioxide during hyperventilation. Meditation, visual imagery, and calming mantras can also stop attacks. Leaving or “escaping” from an anxiety-provoking situation may alleviate symptoms in the moment, but usually worsen fear of similar situations in the future. Prevention of future attacks is the ultimate goal of treatment.
Q: How can I prevent Panic Attacks?
Medications and psychotherapy can be very effective in the prevention of anxiety and panic. Medications that act by increasing Serotonin, such as the entire class of Serotonin Selective Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRI’s), are preferred over tranquilizers such as Xanax and Valium. Tranquilizers are effective for short-term anxiety control but less adept at long term prevention. They can create physical dependence and possibly addiction if taken regularly for a long time. SSRI’s have the potential to completely prevent future panic attacks and can be weaned off over time, especially following a successful course of psychotherapy.
Psychotherapy can be highly effective in teaching tools and coping skills to manage and prevent anxiety. These benefits are much longer lasting and are the best ways to allow someone to come off of medications at some point. Other non-medical fundamentals such as eliminating caffeine, increasing exercise, and getting enough sleep will help yield the best results.