What is a panic attack, and what can I do if I’m experiencing one?

July 31, 2023

A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear accompanied by physical symptoms in response to a situation where there is no real danger or apparent cause. Physical symptoms often include rapid pounding heart rate, trembling or shaking, shortness of breath or hyperventilation, chest pain, lightheadedness or dizziness, headache, sweating, chills, and nausea.

Additional symptoms include fears of: impending danger/doom, loss of control or death. People often think they are having a heart attack, as a panic attack can mimic a heart attack. Panic attacks usually last between 5 to 20 minutes. Panic attacks are fairly common.

About 11% of people in the US experience a panic attack annually. When panic attacks reoccur on a regular basis, this can constitute a panic disorder. Panic disorder occurs in about 2-3% of
the US population.

If you experience a panic attack, the first order of business is to determine if you are having a heart attack. If there is any question about what is happening, seek immediate medical attention. Individuals who know they are having a panic attack can do the following to help abate the panic:

  1. Practice deep breathing – hyperventilating is a very common symptom and taking slow deep breaths will help you reduce your anxiety and other symptoms. Inhale slowly through your nose, hold your breath for a few seconds and exhale slowly through your mouth. Do this for a few minutes.
  2. If you have trouble managing your breathing, you can breathe into a paper bag or your cupped hands over your mouth. Breathing your carbon dioxide will decrease hyperventilation.
  3. Acknowledge you are having a panic attack – realizing you are in no real danger will help manage the anxiety and fear. Remind yourself it will pass.
  4. Engage in grounding techniques. This can include feeling the cushion of the chair you are sitting on, touching your feet to the floor, reading the time on a nearby clock, noticing the temperature of the room you are in, and focusing on scents or sounds around you. You are engaging all your senses to stay focused on your surroundings and self-control.
  5. Call a trusted friend, share your experience, and pray with them.

If you experience reoccurring panic attacks, then seek treatment. A therapist can help you identify triggers, causes, and other treatment approaches to manage your symptoms. Panic attacks can be a symptom of other underlying issues which you may need to explore.

Medication can also be utilized to manage anxiety and panic. Panic attacks and panic disorder are very treatable. If you think you may have a panic disorder, please do not hesitate to seek help. You do not need to suffer with anxiety and panic. Help is available.

Dr. Kahle had extensive experience working in an inpatient setting prior to joining Meier Clinics in 1990. He currently sees adolescents and adults in the Wheaton clinic and is the National Clinical Executive Director.  He uses various techniques including cognitive-behavioral therapy and insight-oriented therapy. Dr. Kahle received his Masters and Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from Forest Institute for Professional Psychology.

Located in our Wheaton office


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