Panic attacks can be frightening and uncomfortable, especially because they can appear out of nowhere. My clients often tell me they feel paralyzed by the anticipation of their next panic attack. At times, they do not even leave their house out of fear they will have the next attack on the road. These panic episodes can be accompanied by feelings of weakness, dizziness, a racing heart, shortness of breath, and overwhelming feelings of terror and fear.
I will never forget my first encounter with a panic attack. I awoke in the middle of the night after my twelfth birthday party to my mother screaming for help. My sister and I rushed to her room and she was shaking on the floor covered in sweat. She kept repeating “I think I am dying.” We immediately took her to the emergency room. We had no doubt that it was a heart attack. She had all the symptoms: shortness of breath, chest pain, sweating, and dizziness!
We spent hours in the emergency room as our mother went through several exams. Eventually, the doctor told us that there was nothing wrong with her heart. She was just experiencing a panic attack. He said that, like a sensitive smoke detector that might go off even when there is no smoke apparent, her body was going through a response to extreme danger where there was none.
We had a hard time believing him. How could it be all in her head? I could see her physiological symptoms! How is it possible to respond to a danger signal if you are safe in your own bedroom? This was only the first of many trips to the emergency room that year. I couldn’t understand how I was seeing her suffer so much when there was nothing physically wrong with her.
Her symptoms only alleviated after she began psychotherapy with a psychologist specializing in the treatment of panic disorders. After few months of consistent psychotherapy, the intensity of her panic attacks dropped significantly. After a year, the panic attacks almost disappeared. She hasn’t had them in the past twenty years or so. My experience with her and with my many clients who have struggled with panic attacks has taught me that understanding panic attacks is the first step to treating them.
What Is a Panic Attack?
Panic attacks have a different profile from generalized anxiety and phobias. No external danger causes the physiological response of a panic attack. Sufferers report that their panic attacks that they come out of blue and take over their bodies.
Common symptoms of panic attack include:
- Feeling of out of control
- Chest pain
- Heart palpitations
- Tingling in hand and feet
While panic attacks are frightening and uncomfortable, they are not dangerous on their own. The body is resilient and bounces back after an attack with no lasting damage. Although my clients tell me that they feel “my heart beating so fast that I am afraid I will have a heart attack.” In fact, a healthy heart can beat 200 times per minute for days without any ill effects. In the most acute cases, someone might have several panic attacks in a week, but that is still not comparable to what our hearts are designed to deal with.
In many cases, the main impact on your life is not the episodes themselves, but the constant fear of future attacks. After a panic episode, people become hypervigilant and fearful of generally insignificant bodily sensations. Constantly scanning their bodies for the signs and symptoms of panic attacks can lead to misreading common physical symptoms. Feeling dizzy or spacey might prompt the thought that “I could have a panic attack.” Preoccupation with this fear and anxious thinking puts people in a constant fight or flight mode. In turn, this can lead to another attack.
Bio: Dr. Nazanin Moali is a clinical psychologist with the highest level of training and education in psychology. She provides effective treatment for anxiety, panic disorders, and phobia both in private practice and at hospitals. She offers confidential and research-proven anxiety and panic treatments to teens and adults. Dr. Moali providers individual therapy at her offices in Torrance and Hermosa Beach. She also offers secure video counseling.