What is a Panic Attack? (Symptoms)
In situations where we feel threatened or scared, it’s normal to feel panic or terror, which may consist of signs such as your heart beating faster, like you have difficulty breathing, you are sweating, or you felt numb or cold. During such moments of intense fear or reaction (usually for a few minutes) towards a threatening (real or otherwise) situation or object, it can be classified as a panic attack if the reaction consists of four or more of the following physical signs (from the DSM-5):
- Your heart rate rises and your heart pounds really hard.
- You are sweating.
- You are trembling or shaking.
- Feeling short of breath or hard to breathe.
- Feeling like you are choking.
- You felt uncomfortable or painful in the chest.
- You felt nauseating sensations or uncomfortable in your abdominal area.
- Dizzying sensations, or light-headed, feeling like you want to faint.
- You felt uncharacteristically cold, or alternatively very hot.
- Feeling numb or some tingling sensations.
- You felt that your surroundings or your situation is unreal, or you felt detached to yourself or the situation you are in.
- You are afraid that you are losing grip or control.
- You are afraid that you are going to die.
Panic attacks are quite normal occurrences for us to have, and most of us have experienced panic attacks at least once or twice in our lifetimes. So a panic attack in and of itself is not a mental disorder, although it CAN exist in parallel in some people with some other mental disorders.
What is Panic Disorder?
But when a person is beset by recurrent episodes of panic attacks over a long period of time, causing heavy levels of distress towards a person’s daily functioning, such as in their daily life, relationships, and work, then that is not just panic attacks, but rather panic disorder. The panic attacks may arise totally out of the blue but are also likely to be preceded or triggered by some event or situation that is particular to that person.
Panic disorder, according to the DSM-5, is characterized by recurring panic attacks (whose signs and symptoms are detailed in the above section). Additional factors include having the following signs (for at least a month or more):
- Being persistently worried or concerned about the recurrence of panic attacks in the future, as well as the resulting consequences of such an attack (imagined or real), such as “going crazy” from such an event, or that having another panic attack will result in death.
- And adopting behaviors that are unhealthy or maladaptive in reaction towards panic attacks, such as avoiding all places or situations or people that might trigger another attack completely.
Treatment for Panic Disorder
Panic disorder can be treated with medication, such as anti-anxiety drugs. Psychotherapy (such as CBT or exposure therapy) can be used to treat people with panic disorder as well. Depending on the severity levels of a case, professionals will design a therapy and recovery program based on that particular case: some cases involve only medication, some only psychotherapy, but some will involve both, as research has also shown that both approaches combined can achieve greater results.
Treatment is to help individuals with panic disorder to cope with their condition, and to find healthier ways to adapt to situations, instead of avoiding them out of fear.
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