Patti Waits, M.Ed., LPC, LICDC (ADAMH Consumer and Family Advocate)
Fear strikes us any time we hear the word “attack.” Heart attacks, terrorist attacks, and shark attacks are all front page news. But one of the most common and daunting attacks is defined by its relationship to fear – a panic attack.
I had one at the age of 39. It’s been more than 20 years since then and I have been unable to forget the way I felt that day. I really believed I might be having a heart attack and I had to pull my car off of the road when the symptoms started. I was sweating and had difficulty catching my breath. My heart was racing and my chest hurt. I was dizzy and I had the overwhelming sense of being detached from myself. The entire time my body was going through the physical motions of panic my mind was also racing and I felt like I was losing control. It took 10 minutes for the intensity of my symptoms to calm down, and slowly I started to feel more normal. I worried for weeks about having another one, but I never did experience another panic attack.
A panic attack, by its definition, is a quick experience of intense fear, apprehension, or terror. These feelings are often not associated with the immediate circumstances; usually they feel like they come out of the blue. Panic attack symptoms can include: labored breathing, shaking, numbness, a sense of unreality, racing thoughts, sweaty palms, nausea, and the feeling that you’re rooted to one spot. The attacks begin suddenly and develop rapidly, but most people’s symptoms peak within 10 minutes. One of the scariest things about a panic attack is that there’s no one direct trigger, so they can happen at any time and to anyone.
It is important to know the difference between a panic attack and having a panic disorder. A panic disorder is when a person experiences panic attacks on a reoccurring basis. People who have panic disorder are consistently worried about possible future panic attacks and their consequences (such as losing control or a heart attack.) Those that develop panic disorder often become so worried about a future panic attack that they avoid situations, people, or places that they think trigger their symptoms. This anxiety produced by the fear of having another attack can actually make their panic disorder even worse.
There is help for those suffering with panic disorder. If you are suffering, you can allow yourself help. Talk to your family doctor about your symptoms, or consult a mental health professional. A list of Fairfield County providers can be found here.