What are panic attacks?
Panic attacks are sudden periods of intense fear or heightened anxiety which victims commonly regard as one of the most intensely upsetting experiences of their lives. People can feel they are dying, having a heart attack, or losing their minds.
The feelings may provoke a powerful urge to escape, although there may not be any obvious sign of physical danger.
Repeated and unexpected panic attacks are considered a symptom of panic disorder, which can be diagnosed through screening tools or by a clinician. Unexpected panic attacks have no obvious trigger, meaning they occur out of the blue and in different situations. This differs from expected panic attacks that may be associated with anxiety and a specific situation, for example, someone with a fear of enclosed spaces (claustrophobia) may have a panic attack in an elevator.
Approximately 5 per cent of Australians will experience panic disorder in their lifetimes. Women are more likely to suffer from the condition, which usually begins in the early to mid-20s or in mid-life, and it is often chronic.
What are some of the signs of a panic attack?
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Shortness of breath
- Dizziness or faintness
- Palpitations, fast heart rate or pounding heart
- Trembling or shaking
- Tunnel vision
- Feelings of unreality
- Feelings of detachment
- Fear of dying
- Fear of losing control or impending doom
What can cause panic attacks and panic disorder?
Expected panic attacks can be caused by exposure to an object or situation one is scared of or feels anxious about.
However, there is no known single cause for panic disorder. Most experts agree that a range of factors may contribute, including:
- Family history: Some studies suggest a genetic component to panic disorder, as sufferers tend to have a family history of anxiety or depressive conditions.
- Biological factors: Some medical conditions have been found to be linked to panic disorder.
- Environmental: negative experiences, such as stressful life events related to abuse or bereavement. Extreme and ongoing periods of stress can also be a factor.
Strategies for managing panic attacks
- Learn about anxiety, panic attacks and panic disorder
- Learn calm breathing and muscle relaxation
- Be aware of the thoughts and feelings that trigger a panic attack
- Know that panic attacks don’t last forever, even if it feels like they do
When to seek professional assistance
If your panic attacks (or fears of impending panic attacks) are preventing you from everyday activities such as working, going shopping, using public transport or taking part in social activities, it may be time to seek help from a psychologist.
The well-researched interventions used by our psychologists aim to change patterns of negative, unhelpful thinking, unhelpful behaviour and the person’s response to life events that may trigger the panic cycle and develop healthy coping strategies.