One of the most debilitating manifestations of anxiety is the panic attack. These dramatic episodes of anxiety seem to come out of the blue and happen even when there is no real danger. They are usually intense for a few minutes and then subside. The sufferer may experience chest pains, the feeling of smothering, dizziness, heart pounding, depersonalization, hot and cold flashes, sweating, numbness, or nausea. These symptoms may be accompanied by fears of dying, going crazy, and losing control.
Those who experience panic attacks often live in fear of their next attack, and this may prevent them from leaving the house, being alone or driving. Panic attacks are not triggered by a specific phobia. One of the factors that perpetuates panic attacks is the fear of having another one.
The perception that a panic attack is coming on can magnify an awareness of symptoms and then the person begins to tense up and harbor thoughts of doom – just the conditions that drive a panic attack.
If you feel a panic attack coming on, it is helpful just to let it happen, as uncomfortable as this may seem. As is true of any phobia, you have to expose yourself to the feared situation in order for the fear to decrease over time. If you don’t tense up, the symptoms will generally subside within a few minutes. Tensing up will perpetuate the episode.
You may feel faint, but you won’t really faint (blood is going to your muscles as you tense up and not to your brain, and this may bring on the sensation of fainting – but your blood pressure and heart rate have increased, so you’re actually less likely to faint).
During a panic attack, try to rechannel your thoughts. Challenge your negative thinking (you are not having a heart attack; you will not suffocate; you are not going crazy; you will not die). Trust that this will end soon. Tell yourself the following – “Well, here it is again. Let me watch my body respond to this, just like I’ve done before. I will survive this and I can handle it. This may be unpleasant, but it’s only anxiety and it will pass. Let me flow through this.”
Baya Mebarek, Psy.D., LMFT
San Diego Couples and Family Therapy serves the surrounding areas of Sorrento Valley Road as La Jolla, UTC San Diego, Del Mar, Rancho Santa Fe, Rancho Bernardo, Rancho Penasquitos, Poway, University City and Escondido.