Approximately 5% of Americans and more than 20% of adult Americans have panic attacks at some point during their lifetimes. That’s around 60 million people, 6 million of which, approximately, experience them in any given year. What is this thing that debilitates so many people, what all too many others inaccurately perceive as “all in their heads”? For starters, a panic attack is a very real medical condition, a diagnosable and treatable! mental disorder.
A panic attack is an intense feeling of “fear, distress, nervousness, or discomfort” that occurs suddenly and, above all, without provocation. Attacks do not occur because danger is present, rather they occur in the distinct absence of danger. That is, in fact, what distinguishes a panic attack from the actual fear, apprehension, terror, or dread they portend.
In a attack, symptoms usually appear abruptly and then peak after about ten minutes, after which it begins to subside. It is possible, however, for a panic attack to last significantly longer than that, or for several panic attacks to occur in rapid succession, one after the other. In these latter cases it can sometimes be difficult even to distinguish the end of one attack from the beginning of another.
Doctors classify panic attacks into three different types: spontaneous (or uncued) attacks, situationally bound (or cued) attacks, and situationally predisposed attacks. Next we will examine each of these basic types of panic attack one by one in greater detail.
Spontaneous Panic Attacks
Spontaneous attacks are also known as uncued attacks because there is no situation present to justify setting it off. People who experience these types of panic attacks report symptoms hitting them from “out of nowhere”, coming “without warning” (whether warning signals were actually present or not). As spontaneous attacks are not connected with any environmental or situational triggers, they can occur at any time in any place, whether asleep or at school or work.
Situationally Bound Panic Attacks
In situationally bound panic attacks, by contrast, circumstances do indeed exist to trigger the attack (whether justifiably or not). Some actual (or anticipated) event is triggering these situationally bound panic symptoms. Whether it be the anxiety over a coming meeting, test, date, social gathering, holiday celebration, shopping excursion, loud concert, swimming outing, hike through nature, ride in an elevator, escalator, airplane, and so on.
As you can see, there are innumerable situations that could potentially trigger a attack if an individual is already prone to experiencing anxiety around aspects inherent to that situation. For example, someone who’s been in a house fire may have a panic attack in the presence of even small contained fires, like a lighter lighting a cigarette. A person with insomnia may have panic attacks in the dark. These are just possibilities, but they should help paint a picture of related events.
Again, what separates anxiety and panic attacks from actual fear around those situations is the difference between perceived danger and actual danger. The possibility of something bad happening is a whole lot different than something bad actually happening.
Situationally Predisposed Panic Attacks
In contrast to situationally bound attacks which are directly tied in with a specific trigger, situationally predisposed panic attacks are those that don’t always happen in the presence of the triggering situation but either sometimes do, or are more prone to in the future, or occur only after repeating or prolonged exposure to the situation, or occur as a delayed reaction to a situation after it has passed.
What Distinguishes Panic Attacks From Panic Disorder?
The difference between a panic attack and a panic disorder is that a panic disorder involves recurring panic attacks that cannot be connected to any drug or alcohol use or some other psychological or medical condition. Many people experience panic attacks once or a few times in their lives. Having even a few panic attacks in a short period of time does not necessarily mean that you have a panic disorder.
At the same time, however, panic attacks can (and often do) lead to panic disorder when not handled proactively and responsibly. In particular there are two primary ways that panic attacks can develop into panic disorder: anticipatory anxiety and phobic avoidance.
Anticipatory anxiety is when the residual feelings left from a panic attack linger and fester to where you can’t even find yourself relaxing in between panic attacks. The imprint that panic attack symptoms make on your memory can have dire consequences for your self-esteem. Anticipatory anxiety is basically a fear of having another panic attack. Over time, if not dealt with, this can create a horrible feedback loop that can snowball from the mere experience of panic attacks to a full-blown panic disorder.
The other primary way that panic attacks can develop into panic disorder, phobic avoidance, is when (as mentioned above) you start changing the way you act and the way you live your life as a result of these panic attacks. The conflict between who you are and who you’re trying to be in order to stave off the next panic attack can actually cause a panic disorder.
If you’ve experienced recurring panic attacks, regardless of how frequently or over how long a period of time, especially if they’re without any situational provocation, discuss your symptoms with your doctor. Likewise if you spend a great deal of time worrying about the eventuality of having your next attack. And if you find yourself changing your plans, routines, and even your behavior as a result of panic attacks (such as to avoid scenarios that may trigger one), again, it might be time to discuss what’s happening with your doctor. Help may be available to prevent such attacks from occurring again.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a part of life. In fact, it is perfectly natural and normal to experience it at some point. It is something that can actually be a helpful tool to keep you motivated, focused, and alert. Being anxious can warn us of impending danger or a threat. In these contexts, feeling anxious is perfectly acceptable.
While feeling anxious for normal reasons can be considered helpful and good, there is also a disturbing form of being anxious that can easily become a problem. There are signs to watch for when, or if, this starts to happen. One of the biggest signs is when being anxious over something starts to control everything about your life, including relationships, work, school, or social life activities.
Anxiety occurs when you are worried or very concerned about something, whether it regards facing a situation, a person, or anything else that causes you apprehension. As long as this stays at a normal level, there is no cause for concern. It is only when this feeling escalates to an almost consuming, mind numbing fear or dread that you need to seriously consider seeking help to manage it.
If you feel that you are experiencing higher than usual worry and fear over something, you need to honestly decide if there are other feelings you are having that are different. Does everything suddenly get on your nerves and make you irritable? Is it next to impossible for you to concentrate on anything? Is it hard for you to stay still? Are you jumpy? Do you ever feel as if your mind has just gone blank? These are a few symptoms of anxiety that you may want to pay extra attention to.
Being anxious also presents some physical symptoms along with the emotional ones. Are you having frequent or severe headaches or experience excess sweating? Is your heart racing or pounding in your throat? Are you having trouble sleeping, yet are constantly tired? Or maybe your stomach is upset? If you are experiencing these symptoms and there doesn’t seem to be a medical reason for them, you are most likely having an anxiety or panic attack.
Just recognizing the symptoms of being over anxious can set you in the direction of seeking needed help and guidance from a healthcare professional. The key to beating this condition before it gets worse is to find the cause and the cure immediately. It is not as hard to treat this type of disorder as you may feel when you are in the throes of an attack.
You only need to follow the instructions of the qualified professional who is guiding you. Before long you will be back to leading a happy and normal life.