What Causes Panic Attacks and What Should You Do When One Happens?
It seems each day we have more reasons to feel anxious. Since anxiety is a big part of what causes panic attacks, it can be a never-ending cycle. Let’s be clear though. We all feel anxious and may occasionally hit the proverbial panic button. A full-blown panic attack, however, is another story. Technically, it’s a release of adrenaline into your bloodstream. In practice, it can be a frightening experience that feels like it will never end. If panic attacks occur more than a few times, it qualifies as a disorder.
Common Panic Attack Symptoms
While each panic attack is unique and specifics vary from person to person, here are some common characteristics:
- Numbness or tingling in fingers and hands
- Cold sweats, chills
- Chest pain
- Rapid heart rate
- Feeling lightheaded, weak, and dizzy
- Difficulty breathing
- Feeling out of control
- Experiencing an overwhelming sense of terror
- Feeling a sense of impending doom or even death
As you can see, a panic attack is much more intense and serious than a realistic but uncomfortable fear or concern.
What Causes Panic Attacks?
There is no clear cut answer to this question. It’s quite possible that some people are more susceptible to panic and thus, panic attacks. They may run in the family but panic attacks are also influenced by environmental and social factors.
That said, the sudden introduction of major stress into a person’s can result in a panic attack. Feelings of panic may be warranted in some circumstances but it becomes a disorder when the attacks continue or appear out of nowhere, especially when no real threat is present.
For now, rather than focus on what causes panic attacks, we can do the work to prepare for them and manage them.
6 Things You Should Do When a Panic Attack Happens
1. Recognize precisely what’s happening
Identify the episode as a panic attack. Accept that it’s happening and must run its course. But also, recognize that you are not under threat or in imminent danger.
2. Talk to yourself
Yell “STOP!” at your negative thoughts. Remind your frightened self: “We’ve gotten through this before.” This will not only break the rhythm of the panic attack, it will ease your anxiety.
3. Remember that panic attacks always pass
The power of panic attack lies, of course, in the panic. As it peaks, it tells you the lie that it has taken full and permanent control. Reality: It will pass and you can control how you feel until it does.
4. Distract yourself
You’ve accepted that a panic attack is happening, that you’ve gotten through them before, and that it will pass. From there, you do not have to play by its rules. Do not give it your full attention. Some options:
- Practice deep breathing
- Call a friend
- Focus attention on something outside of yourself
- Listen to music
This well-known grounding technique brings you back into the present moment. Each person may perform it differently, but the basic idea is to look around wherever you are and identify (usually in this order) five items you can see, four you can touch, three you can hear, two you can smell, and one you can taste. This brings you back to a sense of control and puts you in touch with your surroundings.
And remember: You don’t have to handle this on your own
It can feel like a source of panic just thinking about managing one’s anxiety. Fortunately, you’re not alone. Working one-on-one with a knowledgeable and experienced psychologist is a proven path towards results. You’ll work to discover triggers and patterns. From there, strategies for dealing with panic attacks are discussed and implemented. There’s nothing like knowing you have someone to guide you through this challenging process.