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Panic attack symptoms are strikingly similar to those of an urgent health situation.

So similar that many first-time sufferers race to the emergency room convinced that they’re having a heart attack. In fact, I went to the ER the first two times I had an episode over twenty years ago.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Perhaps the most insidious feature of panic attack symptoms is that they can quickly become a self-fulfilling prophecy. This socio-psychological phenomenon plants the seeds of paranoia, which predicts/expects future episodes to occur. In other words, the resulting fear and trauma produced by the first episode, originally caused by the anxiety of a real-world event, can be the catalyst for future outbreaks.

So now, two issues need to be addressed instead of one. We need to get to the original underlying anxiety but also actively extinguish the self-generated paranoia when it arises.

Can you die from a panic attack?

No. But, when your heart is pounding, your hands are tingly, and you can’t breathe, it can certainly feel like it. So, if you’re one of the 11% of Americans who experience this frightening event, please read on.

What is a panic attack?

During an episode, you will experience several overwhelming physical reactions. Panic attack symptoms include a sudden, brief, intense episode of extreme fear, even though you aren’t in any real danger.

Another feature of this personal hell is that they are sudden and happen when you least expect them. You may be doing something as stress-free and non-panic-inducing as washing dishes or walking the dog. They won’t necessarily come during a stressful situation. This is one of the many reasons people often mistake them for a heart attack because there is no readily apparent cause for panic.

However, if you look more closely, you’ll usually be able to make the connection between your panic attack symptoms and their cause. Although panic attacks can come at any time, they typically occur during periods when you are under a great deal of (nonthreatening) stress, such as an overwhelming project at school or work.

When the underlying stressful situation comes to an end, this self-fulfilling horrorshow will, also.

How often do they occur?

Perhaps the most frightening aspect of this acute form of anxiety is that there’s no pattern to look for. Some people might have just one or two in response to ongoing stress. Others might go through extended periods of recurring panic attacks. For instance, I haven’t had one in about twenty years, but back when I was having episodes it was two weeks straight (almost daily).

For others, these attacks are an ongoing chronic health problem that they have to learn to deal with year after year. If you’re in this last group, you may become hypervigilant, living in constant fear of another attack. You might even change your behavior to try to avoid the next one. When this happens, you could develop a condition known as a panic disorder.

Symptoms of Panic Attacks

Panic attack symptoms are both physical and emotional. You may not experience all of them every time. In general, the symptoms peak within ten minutes.

Some of the more common symptoms include:

  • Abdominal cramping
  • Accelerated heart rate
  • Breathing difficulty
  • Chest pain
  • Chills
  • Dizziness or feeling faint
  • Fear of losing control
  • Feeling detached from reality
  • Feeling like you’re dying
  • Headache
  • Hot flashes
  • Intense terror or fear
  • Nausea
  • Racing heart
  • Sensation of choking or being smothered
  • Sense of impending doom or danger
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • Tingling or numbness in fingers or toes
  • Trembling or shaking

Afterward, you’ll likely feel exhausted—understandable, after such an intense physical episode.

Panic Attack Causes

Researchers have not yet been able to pinpoint the exact causes of a panic attack. However, there are some suggestions that it’s related to your body’s flight-or-fight response (how you react when faced with a life-threatening situation).

Other causes include:

  • Genetics: certain genes can indicate a higher susceptibility to panic attacks
  • Stress: both ongoing (chronic) stressful situations or sudden (acute) stress can contribute
  • Temperament: you may be more vulnerable to negative emotions

Risk Factors

Women are twice as likely as men to suffer from panic attacks. Also, agewise it tends to start in the late teens or early adult years.

However, some factors will increase your likelihood of having an episode:

  • Childhood history of abuse (physical or sexual)
  • Excessive use of caffeine
  • Family history of panic attacks
  • Significant life changes, even positive ones
  • Mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, or other mental illnesses
  • Smoking
  • Substance abuse (alcohol or drugs)
  • Traumatic events

Diagnosis

Your physician or mental health provider can diagnose panic attacks. But because the symptoms of a panic attack mimic those of more severe health conditions (especially a heart attack), most people will go to the ER or their medical provider.

After discussing your symptoms, they will run a series of tests to rule out other illnesses or diseases. If other causes are ruled out, your healthcare provider might then diagnose you with panic attacks.

Panic Attack Help

Once you’ve been diagnosed, your medical or mental health provider will go over your treatment options with you. Panic attack help can come in the following three flavors:

  1. Medication: Unfortunately, there isn’t a specific prescription that can address the root causes. Some people are prescribed anti-anxiety medication, however, this is only a bandaid and not a long-term solution.
  2. Psychotherapy: Talk therapy can be highly effective. Your mental health specialist will work with you to identify triggers. Once identified, you can change your behavior and reactions. As a result, your panic attacks will occur less often and eventually stop altogether.
  3. Mindfulness: Practices like meditation, yoga, and breathing techniques are your best bet.
Meditation. Motion. Emotion.

"Dear stress, let's break up."

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