Explainer: what are panic attacks and what’s happening when we have them?
What would you think was happening to you if out of nowhere your heart started to race, you were drenched in sweat, you found yourself trembling uncontrollably, short of breath, with chest pain and feeling nauseated, dizzy and lightheaded as though you might faint?
You might also be feeling very cold or very hot, with tingling sensations in your fingers and toes. You might feel removed from the world around you – as though it wasn’t real – and be worried that you might lose control or that you are going insane. You might try to work out what is happening and conclude you are having a heart attack or dying.
A panic attack is a sudden, intense feeling of fear or discomfort with at least four of the signs described above. For some people, a panic attack can come out of nowhere, like a sudden thunderstorm from a clear blue sky. For other people, panic attack may be more predictable, such as an abrupt escalation of a milder anxiety about giving a speech or speaking to someone in authority.
Just as a panic attack can follow an experience of relative calm or of mild anxiety, panic can resolve to a relatively calm state or to ongoing, less intense symptoms. But the symptoms of panic attack are severe and frightening. Many people experiencing a panic attack believe they are seriously ill and seek medical help.
What is happening to the body?
Often one of the first symptoms of a panic attack is hyperventilating (rapidly breathing in and out), which upsets the natural balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in our system. One view says a low level of carbon dioxide in the blood directly triggers the symptoms of panic, such as feeling lightheaded and dizzy. When we breathe quickly we also build up oxygen in our blood. Paradoxically, too much oxygen is also associated with feeling short of breath.
Hyperventilation causes many of the other symptoms of a panic attack such as dizziness, blurred vision, tingling, muscle tension, chest pain, heart rate increases, nausea and temperature changes.
People who experience panic misinterpret the bodily signs of hyperventilation as indicating immediate physical danger and believe they have little control over the symptoms. When we then say things to ourselves such as “I might be having a heart attack” and “I can’t cope with this”, the anxiety gets worse.
In a 2013 study, researchers showed when people with no history of panic inhaled air with increased carbon dioxide they reported fear, discomfort and panic symptoms. People with a history of panic attack experience these symptoms at lower concentrations of carbon dioxide, suggesting they are hypersensitive to this internal signal for danger.
Panic attacks can occur with a range of diagnosed mental illnesses, including anxiety disorders, depressive disorders and substance use disorders, as well as physical illnesses, especially illnesses that affect heart function, breathing, balance and digestion. It is very important to understand and deal with panic attacks so they don’t lead to a more serious condition known as panic disorder.
People with panic disorder have a history of panic attacks and worry they will have further panic attacks. They change the way they live to ensure they do not have another panic attack. They avoid activities like exercise that cause feelings similar to panic attack (shortness of breath, sweating) and avoid situations where they fear another panic attack may occur. This avoidance brings many additional problems, as social, family and occupational worlds shrink due to fear of panic.
What should you do if you have a panic attack?
Panic attacks are common, with almost 23% of a people from a large US study of the general population reporting at least one panic attack during their lives. Panic attacks are more common in females than males. They are also more common in family members of people with panic disorder.
Panic attacks are more common among people who believe symptoms of anxiety are dangerous and harmful, rather than annoying and uncomfortable. They are also more likely if you are under emotional pressure, have been ill, are tired, are hungover or smoke.
As many of the symptoms of panic attack are physical and can be caused by a number of physical conditions, the first thing to do if you have symptoms like the ones described here is to see your doctor to check whether there is a medical reason for the symptoms.
If the symptoms are due to panic, then there are effective psychological approaches for controlling panic attacks. These focus on:
monitoring and slowing breathing, as overbreathing causes many panic sensations
correcting the interpretations about what the symptoms mean by looking at the things we say to ourselves before, during and after a panic attack. It is very important to remember the symptoms are “just anxiety” and are not life-threatening.
There is useful information about panic attack and how to cope with it available through Lifeline.
Lynne Harris, Professor of Psychological Sciences, School of Psychological Sciences, Australian College of Applied Psychology and Honorary Assoc Prof with the Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Sydney