Imagine for a moment, that you are out with your friends having a great night out.
You've known these people for years and have wonderful memories with them, they make you feel safe.
You're out on the town with them laughing and smiling, having a great time.
Maybe you're all going out to dinner together and you arrive at the restaurant and take your seats.
Everyone's looking at the menu and as you glance over a few items you start to feel, different.
You're not sure what it is, but you feel, off.
It starts to get worse so you quickly stand up but try not to draw attention and tell your friends you're going to the bathroom.
You get to the bathroom and your heart is racing as you close the bathroom door.
You feel like you're losing control, your neck and hands start to sweat, your heart is pounding, you can hardly breathe, and you have this awful feeling, as a terrible dread washes over you.
After a few minutes, your heart rate slows down, the fear subsides, and you're left with terrible confusion about what just happened.
You wash your face in the sink and return to the dinner table and your friends, shaken up, but okay.
What in the world just happened?
That was a panic attack.
Panic attacks are a form of intense anxiety and fall under anxiety-related disorders if they occur regularly.
Today we're going to break down how panic attacks are the experience of intense anxiety and what you can do about them.
A panic attack comes on quickly and often with no warning.
They can last anywhere between 5 minutes and 20 minutes and are often mistaken for a heart attack.
Many people call 911 and get to the hospital and nothing wrong that they can find so they send them back out only to repeat the same thing 3,4, or even 5 more times before someone says, "hey, you might be having panic attacks."
To be sure, call 911 if you think you are having a heart attack- far better to find out it was a panic attack than to risk your life.
But what are panic attacks?
Why do they happen?
And, most importantly, what can be done about them?
To answer the first question; panic attacks are bursts of intense anxiety associated with increased heart rate, rapid breathing, sweating, chest tightness, fear of loss of control or death, and trembling or shaking.
Essentially it's all the signs of anxiety but packed into a short powerful burst that hits all at once.
Luckily it lasts less than half an hour.
However, there is a tendency to have multiple panic attacks over your lifetime.
There is also a specific disorder called Panic Disorder in which panic attacks occur fairly frequently resulting in consistent worry about future panic attacks which can often stimulate more panic attacks.
Which brings us to the second question, why do they happen?
The second question is not so easy to answer.
Panic attacks frequently happen for no reason at all.
That example above, that's not so far off from something I personally experienced; no trigger, no danger, no intense physical exertion, just dinner with a group of close friends.
Other times panic attacks can happen during periods of acute stress or fear.
For instance, if you are in a car accident, being chased, or some other situation that gets your adrenaline pumping.
These situations make more sense seeing as all the symptoms listed above are aspects of the flight or fight system being activated.
In fact, that's exactly what your flight or fight system should be doing.
It should get your heart rate up so you can make a quick escape.
But, as is the case with Panic Disorder, many panic attacks occur without anything happening at all.
You could be sitting at home thinking about what to make for dinner, grocery shopping, or any other mundane activity.
Some people believe that it's the result of a misfiring of the amygdala or at the very least an overactive amygdala which is responsible for sending fear signals.
Ultimately, we know what panic attacks are, but we don't know why they are, not with any reason that makes consistent and sound sense anyway.
This brings us, finally, to our third question, is there anything that can be done about them?
It is time for some overdue good news about panic attacks.
Though there isn't a cure, there are a lot of long-term improvements that you can make to decrease the intensity, decrease the length, and decrease the frequency.
The focus here will be on what you can do at the moment to ride out the attack as smoothly as possible.
Now that you are familiar with what a panic attack looks and feels like you can use that knowledge to help you at the moment by walking yourself through the experience.
As soon as the panic attack starts, pay attention to what is happening in your body.
This might seem counter-intuitive but it works.
Locate your heartbeat, identify where you have muscle tension, pay attention to your breathing, and notice what your body is going through step by step.
Talk yourself through the experience as if you were describing it to someone else.
The goal is to become a detached observer of your own experience.
Doing these steps helps inform your brain that there is no immediate threat or danger.
After all, you can't very well pay attention to those things if there was immediate danger.
As you benign to notice your heart rate, breathing, etc. your body will automatically begin to calm down.
You can help it calm down by elongating yours exhales.
In other words, once you notice how short your breaths are, take longer slower exhales.
Long exhales are proven to slow your heartbeat which sends signals to the brain to calm down.
The more you practice this, the quicker and easier it becomes.
The easier it becomes the less intense and shorter the panic attacks will be.
Panic attacks are scary and intense.
Becoming familiar with what panic attacks are will be a huge help to decrease their intensity, longevity, and frequency.
We know what a panic attack is, and we know what to do about them.
Why they occur is still up for debate, but whatever the cause you have more control than you realize.
By walking yourself through the experience as if you're an observer you will immediately lessen the severity of the attack.
Focusing on your breathing pattern and elongating your exhales will send signals to the brain to calm down.
Panic attacks don't have to ruin your life.
These simple steps will help you start taking back control so you can live the life you want.
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It is my primary goal as a counselor to create a space for every individual to explore their lives and find the opportunities that may be lurking where it is most difficult to look. Through a unique therapeutic approach that combines Jungian symbology/dream-work with Narrative and Existential explorations, I will help you re-discover who you are. It is my mission to help you navigate life transitions, depression, anxiety, faith-based and spiritual concerns, as well as how to re-establish a connection with what is most important to you.
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