Breathe in… breathe out. We’ve got you covered.
It’s common for people to exaggerate feelings of stress by claiming they’re “literally having a panic attack.” However, panic attacks are a technical term for a specific set of symptoms (and it’s not the same as just being nervous or panicking). For people who have these attacks frequently, they are no joke. Luckily, there are a number of options for treating panic attacks.
When is it time to seek treatment? First of all, it’s never too early to get help for your mental health. A single panic attack may signal that you may be dealing with anxiety. If your panic attacks are happening frequently and affecting your daily life, you may have developed a disorder. It’s time to take control—so what are your options?
How Do You Know You’re Having a Panic Attack?
Panic attacks aren’t just in your head: They cause real physical symptoms. In fact, many people mistake panic attacks for heart attacks (especially the first time they have one).
Symptoms of a panic attack include:
- Racing, pounding heartbeat
- Chest and stomach pain
- Constricted breathing
- Pin and needles sensation
Someone with a panic disorder might fixate on the issue, including symptoms like:
- Fear of death, impending doom, and losing control
- Constant, intense nerves about when the next attack will come
- Avoiding situations that have led to previous attacks, causing the person’s life to become limited
Options for Treating Panic Attacks
The common route of treatment for panic attacks is a combination of medication and a type of talk therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
CBT focuses on identifying and changing how you think, and how your thoughts affect your actions. Certain thought patterns might worsen anxiety, such as black-and-white thinking or jumping to conclusions. It’s easy to default to those patterns, but the deeper you dig that path, the more likely you are to be susceptible to another attack.
By treating the underlying anxiety, you may be able to prevent or have fewer panic attacks.
Medications for Treating Panic Attacks
The main medications for panic attacks are antidepressants. The name may refer to depression, but these medicines are also helpful in treating anxiety and panic attacks. Be patient: These might take a few weeks to start working, and months to have you start feeling back to your old self.
Benzodiazepines are another option. These are a short-acting medicine that may provide relief when you feel a panic attack coming on. Your doctor may also suggest taking one in moments that might trigger a panic attack, such as before a flight. However, benzodiazepines have a higher risk of dependency and are generally suggested for short-term use, so your doctor may not recommend this option.
Finally, pay attention to any side effects you may have. Just because you may not react well to one medication doesn’t mean that another can’t work for you. Talk to your doctor if you think one type of antidepressant isn’t working for you or your life.
Strategies to Interrupt an Attack
Finally, your therapist may suggest strategies for when you’re in the middle of an attack. In a session, they may have you exercise in short spurts to mimic some of the physical symptoms of an attack in a controlled environment. Then you can practice coping techniques, such as breathing exercises that can help you slow down your heart rate.
There are also “grounding” exercises that use the five senses to distract you from your thoughts and help you refocus on the present. One popular method is the 5-4-3-2-1 method. This involves listing five things you can see around you, four things you can hear, three things you can touch near you, and so on.
Any of these can show you that you haven’t in fact lost control, which can help you regain perspective the next time you feel one coming on. This may also help reduce your fears of certain situations. You don’t have to go through it alone. Talk to your doctor about creating an action plan that’s right for you.
- Panic Disorder: When Fear Overwhelms. Bethesda, MD: The National Institute of Mental Health Information Resource Center, 2016. (Accessed on August 11, 2021)
- Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Health, 2020. (Accessed on August 11, 2021)
- Panic Attacks and How to Treat Them. New York, NY: Child Mind Institute, Inc. (Accessed on August 11, 2021)