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  • Writer's pictureDr. Samantha Brustad

Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder: What They Are, and How to Manage Them




Understanding panic attacks can feel like unraveling a complicated puzzle. You may wonder why these intense feelings of fear and discomfort suddenly surface, seemingly out of nowhere. These can come in the form of abrupt isolated incidents of intense fear and discomfort or as part of a recurrent condition known as panic disorder.


Both conditions can have limiting effects on your well-being, which is why understanding them is crucial to your emotional and mental health. While everyone’s individual experiences of panic attacks and panic disorder can vary, learning about the symptoms, causes, and treatments of panic attacks and panic disorder can help you better understand the issue.


With the help of knowledge and the right support system, especially when paired with the help of a mental health professional, you can learn to manage panic disorder, improving your mental well-being and freeing you from the turmoil caused by panic attacks.


In this guide, we’ll be exploring the overarching concepts behind panic attacks and panic disorder. While we will cover everything from symptoms and causes to potential interventions, it is crucial to note that this knowledge should be paired with a mental health professional for the best chance of success. 


Together with the help of a trained psychologist or therapist, you can work towards developing a comprehensive understanding of these conditions and discover potential coping strategies that best suit your needs.


If you are in the St. Petersburg or Tampa Bay area and want to learn more, reach out to our team here at Balanced Minds! We pride ourselves on helping children, teens, and adults navigate life’s challenges, from life planning and goal-setting to managing mental health concerns.


With that, let’s explore everything you need to know about panic attacks.


Understanding Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder

Panic attacks and panic disorder are both related to fear and anxiety, but they have distinct differences. Understanding these differences can help you manage your own mental health when paired with the right support system.


Difference Between Panic Attack and Panic Disorder

While the two concepts go hand-in-hand, individual panic attacks are distinct from panic disorder.


A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions. It can occur unexpectedly or be triggered by a specific situation or event. During a panic attack, you might feel shortness of breath, rapid heart rate, sweating, trembling or shaking, and a sense of impending doom. These attacks can be frightening and may last for several minutes.


On the other hand, panic disorder is an anxiety disorder characterized by recurrent, unexpected panic attacks and persistent worry about having more panic attacks. You might experience the fear of losing control or feel the need to avoid places or situations where previous panic attacks have occurred. It is important to note that while having a panic attack can be distressing, not everyone who experiences a panic attack has panic disorder.


Understanding the difference between panic attacks and panic disorder is essential for managing your mental health and seeking appropriate treatment. In both cases, therapy, self-help strategies, and medications can help alleviate symptoms and improve your overall well-being. 


Causes and Triggers

It is critical to recognize that experiencing panic attacks does not mean you're weak or unable to cope with stress. Rather, these episodes are a part of your particular anxiety response. 


The causes of panic attacks and panic disorder can vary by individual, so it is best to consult with a licensed therapist or psychologist to work on the root cause.


Common Causes

Panic attacks can be caused by a variety of factors. Some common causes include stress, depression, and anxiety. When you're under a lot of stress, your body may respond with a panic attack as a way to cope with the overwhelming emotions. Similarly, if you struggle with depression or anxiety, these conditions can make you more susceptible to experiencing panic attacks.


Substance abuse is another common cause of panic attacks. Consuming large amounts of caffeine, alcohol, or illicit drugs can trigger panic attacks in some individuals.


Contributing Factors

Several factors can contribute to the onset of panic attacks and panic disorder. Here are a few key contributing factors:

  • Work & School: A high-pressure job or work environment can lead to increased stress levels, making you more prone to panic attacks. Similarly, students can also be under similar stress due to deadlines, tests, and performance.

  • Emotions: Intense emotions, such as grief, anger, or fear, may trigger panic attacks if not effectively managed.

  • Daily Life: The challenges and stressors of daily life can accumulate and contribute to the onset of panic attacks. This might include financial difficulties, relationship issues, or significant life changes.


It's essential to be aware of panic attacks' potential causes and triggers to better understand and manage them. Recognizing the factors that may be contributing to your panic attacks can help you take steps to reduce their frequency and find healthier ways to cope with stress and challenging emotions.


Signs and Symptoms

Correctly identifying the symptoms of a panic attack will allow you to seek out the help and coping mechanisms you need.


Physical Symptoms

During a panic attack, you may experience various physical symptoms that can be quite distressing. Some common physical symptoms include a racing heart, shortness of breath, and difficulty breathing. You might also feel chest pain that could be mistaken for a heart attack, as well as shaking, trembling, and chills. 


Other physical symptoms can include sweating, headache, nausea, dizziness, and lightheadedness. You may also experience numbness or tingling sensations in different parts of your body.


Emotional Symptoms

Apart from physical symptoms, panic attacks also have emotional symptoms that you should be aware of. During an attack, you might feel an overwhelming sense of fear, feelings of unreality, or detachment. It is also common to feel a loss of control or feel like you're going crazy. Anxiety about having another panic attack can lead to the development of panic disorder, which can result in avoiding certain situations to prevent triggering an attack.


It's important to note that the severity and duration of panic attack symptoms may vary from person to person. Recognizing these symptoms in yourself or others can help in managing and seeking appropriate treatment for panic attacks and panic disorder.


Panic Disorder in Different Populations

Gender

When it comes to panic disorder, there are differences in how it affects different genders. Feminine individuals are more likely to experience panic attacks and panic disorder. Feminine folks often report more intense fears, such as losing control or dying, during their panic attacks compared to masculine people. However, it is essential to remember that panic disorder can affect anyone, regardless of gender.


Additionally, LGBT+ people are also more susceptible to instances of panic attacks and disorder. The charity organization Just Like Us reported that 36% of the LGBT+ youth population in the UK reported instances of panic attacks, compared to 15% in the overall population.


Children and Adolescents

Panic attacks can also occur in younger populations, including children and adolescents. For children, the fear of losing control or experiencing a panic attack can be felt in various situations, such as going to school or being separated from their parents. It is important to identify panic attacks early in children, as they may not fully comprehend what is happening to them. Early intervention can help them manage their anxiety more effectively and prevent it from escalating as they grow older.


Adults and Seniors

As you move through adulthood, your experiences with panic attacks and panic disorder may change. Some adults may have struggled with panic attacks since their childhood, while others may not experience one until later in life. Factors such as stress, significant life changes, or underlying health issues can contribute to the onset of panic disorder in adults.


For seniors, coping with panic attacks can be particularly challenging. Fears associated with aging, such as losing independence or suffering from chronic health conditions, can trigger panic attacks. It is crucial for older adults to be aware of the symptoms of panic disorder and seek professional help if needed. This can help them improve their quality of life and manage their anxiety more effectively.


Overall, it is essential to remember that panic attacks and panic disorder can affect people at different stages of their lives and can manifest differently depending on the individual's unique circumstances.


Associated Conditions and Complications

Agoraphobia

Agoraphobia is a common complication associated with panic disorder. If you have agoraphobia, you may fear situations where escape or help may not be available if you experience a panic attack. This could lead to avoiding places or situations, such as crowds, public transportation, or enclosed spaces, which can further impact your daily life and functioning.


Anxiety Disorders

Panic disorder is closely related to other anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and social anxiety disorder. If you have panic disorder, you might also find yourself struggling with persistent worry, restlessness, or fear of social situations. These co-occurring disorders can worsen your overall anxiety symptoms, making it essential to address them during treatment.


Depression

Depression is another condition that may coexist with panic disorder. If you experience feelings of hopelessness, persistent sadness, or loss of interest in activities, you might be dealing with depression alongside your panic disorder. Recognizing and addressing depressive symptoms is crucial, as they can exacerbate panic attacks and make it more challenging to recover.


Phobias

Phobias are intense, irrational fears of specific objects or situations. You might develop phobias as a result of your panic disorder, particularly if you associate certain triggers with panic attacks. For example, if you've experienced panic attacks while driving, you might develop a phobia of driving, which could further restrict your daily life and mobility.


It is essential to address these associated conditions and complications when seeking treatment for your panic disorder. Working with a mental health professional can help you develop coping strategies and skills to manage your symptoms and improve your quality of life.


Frequently Asked Questions

What are the common symptoms of a panic attack?

During a panic attack, you may experience an overwhelming sense of fear, rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, trembling, and feelings of impending doom or catastrophe. You might also experience excessive sweating, hot or cold flashes, numbing or tingling sensations, and lightheadedness. Panic attack symptoms tend to reach a peak within a few minutes and then slowly subside after approximately 10 minutes.


What causes panic attacks to occur?

Panic attacks are usually triggered by stress, anxiety, or a traumatic event. However, the exact cause may vary from person to person. It's important to note that panic attacks can also occur without a specific identifiable trigger. Factors like genetics, exposure to traumatic events, brain chemistry, and a history of mental health conditions may contribute to the development of panic disorder.


What is the difference between panic attacks and anxiety attacks?

While panic attacks and anxiety attacks share some similarities, they are distinct in terms of intensity and duration. Panic attacks are typically intense and abrupt, with physical symptoms reaching a peak within minutes. Anxiety attacks, on the other hand, develop more gradually and tend to be less severe. Anxiety attacks often occur as an anticipatory response to a specific situation, whereas panic attacks can happen unexpectedly and seemingly without reason.


How can panic disorder be treated effectively?

Effective treatment options for panic disorder may include therapy, medication, or a combination of both. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is an approach used by mental health professionals that helps you identify and change negative thought patterns that contribute to panic attacks. Medication, such as antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications, may also be prescribed to manage your symptoms and help prevent future attacks.


How can I cope with a panic attack in the moment?

When you're experiencing a panic attack, try to focus on deep breathing, taking slow, steady breaths in through your nose and exhaling through your mouth. Remind yourself that panic attacks are temporary and will pass. Ground yourself in the present moment by focusing on physical sensations, such as feeling your feet on the ground or the texture of an object. You also want to implement calming activities like progressive muscle relaxation or deep breathing.


Conclusion

Overall, panic attacks and panic disorder can be a scary experience. The feeling of losing control and the fear that comes with it can feel harrowing. However, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.


Panic attacks and panic disorder can ultimately be managed with the right support system and the help of a mental health professional.


If you or a loved one are dealing with panic attacks or panic disorder, getting help is the best way to start the road to recovery! If you are in the Tampa Bay area and want to connect with a mental health professional, reach out to our team here at Balanced Minds!


With decades of combined experience in the mental health field, we work tirelessly to provide compassionate guidance for children, teens, and adults for all of life’s challenges.


With a friendly and knowledgable mental health professional in your corner, defeating panic attacks and panic disorder is a possibility! Contact our team if you want to start the consultation process!


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