Panic attacks have been described as intense terror or overwhelming fear that comes upon a person “out of the blue.” An attack can happen to a person anywhere in any situation. It can last for just a few seconds or for hours. This intense terror may be accompanied with some of the following symptoms:
- shortness of breath (or smothering sensations)
- dizziness, unsteady feelings, or faintness
- palpitations or accelerated heart rate
- trembling or shaking
- nausea or abdominal distress
- depersonalization or derealization
- numbness or tingling sensations
- flushes (hot flashes) or chills
- chest pain or discomfort
- fear of dying
- fear of going crazy or doing something uncontrolled
These attacks are related to our instinctive “fight or flight” mechanism. To illustrate this, imagine walking through a thick wilderness. As you approach a small river, you notice a large black bear feeding. At this point the bear hasn’t noticed you, but your body begins to react. Your heart starts beating faster, and your blood pressure elevates. Your hands and legs begin to go numb, because your blood is being pumped to your legs for running and to your arms for fighting. Adrenaline is being released into your body. During all this, your mind is focused on that bear, and not on your body. If the bear sees you, then your body is ready to react.
Someone having a panic attack will experience the same symptoms: rapid heartbeat, numbing sensation in the hands and legs, and elevated blood pressure. Irrational fears arise because the person having the attack is “looking for the bear.” Since no external danger can be found, the panic sufferer begins to listen to what their body is telling them. My heart is racing. Maybe it’s a heart attack. My body is going numb. I must be dying. Thoughts race through the mind as the sufferer tries to “find the bear.”
In a “fight or flight” respone, the body begins to react to the perceived or real threat. Blood pressure elevates, breathing rate increases, heart rate increases and blood is pumped to the legs for running and to the arms for fighting. That is why many people having a panic attack have cold and/or tingling hands.
Lately, the knowledge of panic attacks is increasing. People are becoming more aware of the effects of a panic attack. Also, doctors today can now effectively diagnose these attacks of terror. Treatment is possible. In fact, treatment for panic attacks and panic disorder have found to be effective in 80% to 90% of the people who receive treatment. Sadly though, only one in four people ever seek treatment.
*Statistics gathered from the National Mental Health Institute (NIMH).