Panic-attacks can be a very difficult and scary experience, which can last more than ten minutes. Panic-attacks typically include the following symptoms: racing or pounding heartbeat, chest pains, nausea, dizziness, difficulty breathing, a sense of feeling smothered, tingling or numbness in the hands, hot flushes/chills, trembling and shaking, dreamlike sensations, terror, a sense that something unimaginably horrible is about to occur and one is powerless to prevent it, a need to escape, thoughts of losing control and doing something embarrassing or fear of dying.
Panic-attacks are very common. It is estimated that 1 in 5 people will experience a panic attack at some point in their life. Sufferers of panic-attacks typically describe them as arriving unexpectedly and appearing completely unprovoked. People who have regular panic-attacks may find that they tend to occur in certain situations, especially the ones in which a panic attack has occurred previously. Sometimes the thought of engaging in certain activities or situations can prompt symptoms of panic, which can result in further restrictions in a person’s life.
Panic-attacks may be symptoms of an anxiety disorder. Panic-attacks can also be associated with other emotional and mental health difficulties such as schizophrenia, post traumatic stress disorder, or alcohol or drug withdrawal. It is very important to check with your General Practitioner when you are experiencing panic-attacks, as they may also be caused by specific physical and medical abnormalities (e.g. thyroid abnormalities, anemia, sleep apnoea, pregnancy etc). Similarly, certain medications may also contribute to panic-attacks (e.g. stimulants, insulin, anti-malarial, insulin etc). In addition, an assessment of diet is helpful to check for substances that may be making panic-attacks more likely (e.g. aspartame, dyes, caffeine etc).
Due to the nature of the symptoms, people with panic-attacks often misinterpret the bodily sensations as a heart attack. It has been reported that 1 in 4 people who visit Accident and Emergency departments with chest pain are actually experiencing panic. Misdiagnosis can be common with this group of people with many people who regularly experience panic-attacks being diagnosed incorrectly with medical conditions. Alternatively, it is also common for medical practitioners to dismiss the symptoms as “all in your head”, which diminishes the felt experience of panic-attacks and also does not help the person who has to endure the physical symptoms.
If you have a loved one who experiences regular panic-attacks, it is best to acknowledge their fear and the intensity of their symptoms while also reassuring the person having the panic attack that what is occurring is not life-threatening and will pass. Offering emotional support and encouraging the person suffering from the panic attack to seek professional help is most beneficial.