Panic attacks are awful. Even though they often don't last very long, they can derail your day and have longer-lasting effects. Luckily, they are often treatable. Though what triggers a panic attack varies from person to person, grief, trauma, pre-existing mental health conditions, and stress can play a role.

As much as it's a miserable experience, experiencing a panic attack more than once can give you the opportunity to try different coping or prevention techniques. This can help you develop a plan to feel in control the next time symptoms develop

Panic Attack Symptoms

Panic attacks can appear seemingly out of the blue when our bodies go into "fight or flight" mode in response to a perceived threat. A person may be in traffic en route to a meeting, and the sympathetic nervous system responds to anxiety like it has just encountered a lion and survival is at stake.

A surge of chemicals causes physical symptoms such as a racing heart, dilated pupils, sweating, breathing problems, abdominal discomfort, light-headedness, and tingling. Over a dozen symptoms are linked to panic attacks, and having at least four symptoms indicates one has occurred.

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If It’s the First Time

The first time these symptoms take place, it might be best to see a doctor soon after and confirm the diagnosis. Panic attacks are not physically dangerous for healthy individuals but can become heart attacks in folks with heart conditions or other risk factors.

Asthma, epilepsy, and other medical conditions can also present with similar symptoms, and drugs, including prescription medications, can trigger panic attacks too.

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What To Do: Communicate

So what do you do when we are again confronted with unwanted symptoms that make you feel like you're at death's door? You start by talking yourself into a calmer state. As soon as your thoughts start racing or you begin feeling faint, remind yourself that you are not in danger and that the symptoms will eventually stop.

If talking to yourself doesn't help, calling a loved one and listing your symptoms can make a difference.

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Focus on Breathing

Inhale through the nose and exhale through the mouth. Slow, consistent breathing into the diaphragm can help overcome hyperventilation and dizziness. Belly breathing sends oxygen to the brain and tells the parasympathetic nervous system there is nothing major going on.

This signaling calms the body down. Continuing whatever you were doing when the panic attack struck—assuming it wasn't something specifically panic-inducing—can also be grounding.

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Use Distractions

When you notice the onset of symptoms, you can try the popular 5-4-3-2-1 method. This changes your focus from worry to a less threatening sensory experience and can help anchor you. Count five visible items, four touchable items, three audible items, two scents, and one taste.

Counting colors can provide a distraction too. How many objects in the vicinity are green or blue, for example? It is also worth exploring muscle relaxation techniques, looking at a photo of someone who brings joy and a sense of security, or imagining various comforts.

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Be Cool

When you grasp something cold, like a wet cloth or an ice compress, it can shock your system out of panic and into the less-scary present. In addition, panic attacks often result in hot flashes, and a glass of cold water can cool your body down and stop sweating.

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How To Help Someone Who is Having a Panic Attack

It's difficult to watch a loved one go through a panic attack, but if it's not the first time, maintain your composure; otherwise, you risk worsening the situation. Enquire whether the individual needs space or support, and be careful with word choice and tone so as not to minimize their feelings. Encourage deep breathing, hold their hand, and reassure them that they'll be okay.

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Treatment With Therapy

If panic attacks start affecting daily life and self-help measures aren't working, therapy is a valuable next step. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can unearth the root cause of fears and result in stress-relieving paradigm shifts. During interoceptive exposure therapy, a qualified therapist may induce panic attack symptoms to rewire the brain.

The brain can then recognize that symptoms occur when there's no apparent threat and work to respond more reasonably to those triggers.

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Treatment With Meds

Nonaddictive and safe medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) can help people cope with generalized anxiety and panic attack symptoms in the short term while trying other coping mechanisms to deal with long-term effects.

Doctors may prescribe benzodiazepine, too, which are a type of tranquilizer. These are safe when taken as instructed, but they come with a potential for dependency and withdrawal symptoms.

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The Demographics of Panic

Which demographic groups are most affected by panic attacks? It turns out females are much more likely to struggle with panic attacks than males. Adolescents and young adults going through significant life changes, such as divorce or unemployment, are also at a higher risk—most people experience their first panic attacks during this stage.

These terrifying episodes can happen to anyone, but they are less likely to occur in adults who have reached their mid-40s without ever experiencing a panic attack.

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This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.