Do You Know How to Recognize and Deal With a Panic Attack?

Panic attacks are increasingly common in today's world. Here, we talk about how to recognize and deal with them.
Do You Know How to Recognize and Deal With a Panic Attack?
Gema Sánchez Cuevas

Reviewed and approved by the psychologist Gema Sánchez Cuevas.

Written by Yamila Papa

Last update: 21 December, 2022

A panic attack is a period in which you suddenly suffer from an extremely intense, irrational fear. They can last from minutes to hours. They usually appear out of nowhere and their maximum intensity is reached in ten minutes or so. However, they can continue for longer if you do nothing to escape or get out of the situation.

If you suffer from repeated, intense panic attacks triggered by different factors, you must consult a specialist. If you don’t, you may find yourself making desperate attempts or efforts to get out of the situation but you won’t always succeed. Or, you might simply give in and wait for the next one to happen.

In a panic attack, the recurring feeling is fear, terror, shock, and panic. Physical symptoms of great intensity also occur. For instance, pulmonary hyperventilation, tachycardia, shortness of breath, tremors, dizziness, nausea, headache, etc. Furthermore, you might feel that you don’t want to leave home or work, you prefer to be in company, and you certainly don’t want to get on public transport.

An interruption to daily life

Panic attacks have no warning and can occur at any time or place. They start as increasing anguish, to which is added anxiety and physiological arousal, without any apparent cause. At least, one that’s not observable to the naked eye. They abruptly and unexpectedly interrupt your daily life. In addition, the symptoms can remain even after the panic attack has calmed down.

There are some signs that appear at the time of the attack, and others that lurk in the background. For example, instability, migraines, high blood pressure, chest pain, tachycardia, shortness of breath, etc.

A woman having a panic or an anxiety attack.

Although panic attacks have a short duration, they’re so intense that, when you suffer from them, you tend to think that hours instead of minutes have passed between the beginning and the end of the episode. In fact, it’s common for you to believe that either you’re about to die or you feel an overwhelming desire to escape. The fact of not being able to do so causes your fear to increase and affects your ability to reason.

The average age of onset of this problem is 22 years old. It’s believed that it’s due to family separation (or your adolescent life ) or personal autonomy (having to take charge of your life). The sensations range from losing control or reason, feeling that you’re about to die, feeling the need to escape from a place, situation, or moment, or an unreal perception of what’s happening.

What causes a panic attack?

There isn’t one specific list of all the triggers of panic attacks. That’s because they tend to depend on the characteristics of each individual sufferer or situation. Nonetheless, it’s possible to identify some of the conditions that trigger a panic attack.

  • Inherited predisposition: These can also be related to upbringing (environmental factors). For instance, implanting fear in children, a mother who’s extremely fearful of the father, a control-obsessive father, a childhood trauma, etc.
  • Biological causes. Generalized anxiety, stress, obsessive-compulsive disorders, hyperthyroidism, vitamin B deficiency, hypoglycemia, post-traumatic stress, disturbances in the inner ear, among others.
  • Phobias. They also generate fear in the short term and, if they’re not treated, they can worsen. They range from spiders to closed spaces, planes to people.
  • Medications. Some drugs such as antidepressants can cause panic attacks. Also stimulants or depressants (caffeine is the most common).
  • Persistent causes. Thinking negatively all the time, having a bad image of yourself, bad beliefs about something, withheld feelings, constant doubts, and lack of assertiveness (when confrontation is avoided and communication is rather passive).
  • Abstinence syndrome. A panic attack can appear as a symptom when you stop consuming some type of substance, whether legal or illegal (alcohol, drugs, tobacco, medications, etc.).

How to deal with a panic attack

Once it’s been determined that you’re suffering from panic attacks, the next step is to confront the situation. This requires time and patience so that you can start to face your fear and not avoid it.

These golden rules for panic attacks are really extremely effective:

  • Remember that your feelings are just an exaggeration of what’s really happening.
  • It’s only an unpleasant moment. It’s neither harmful nor dangerous and nothing bad will happen.
  • Don’t add more alarming negative thoughts in the middle of the attack. Imagine something wonderful like a bird, a flower, or a sunset.
  • Look at what’s happening in your body not just in your mind.
  • Wait and let the fear pass. Don’t fight it. Accept it.
  • Remember that when you stop thinking about disturbing or alarming things, the fear will go away.
  • Face your fear. Don’t avoid it. It’s a great opportunity to progress.
  • Think about the progress you’ve made, despite everything.
  • Look around you as soon as you feel better and be grateful for what you have.
  • Start moving slowly when you’re ready. Don’t exert yourself or run away. Move gradually.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.