What Is a Panic Attack and What You Can Do About It

29/06/2016 12:36 | Updated 29 June 2016

In April of this year, a woman named Amber Smith posted a picture of herself before and after a panic attack. Her post, which had been shared by thousands of people, is meant to urge those who are suffering from mental health disorders to not suffer in silence. It's unfortunate that despite the facts written about panic attack, there are still a lot of misconceptions about it. And these misconceptions often keep people from seeking professional help.

Palpitations, shortness of breath, confusion, dizziness, and a strong urge to leave the place - these are just some of the symptoms of a panic attack. Thousands of years ago, panic attacks could have a better purpose. In highly dangerous situations, like what our ancestors had before, this fight or flight response can protect us from potential threats. But these days, a panic attack doesn't have a practical purpose. In fact, it is considered to be more of a liability than an asset.

Understanding the Panic Attack

A panic attack is described as an overwhelming feeling of fear or anxiety. When a person is having a panic attack, he/she feels like he/she is going to die or go crazy. There is chest pain, feelings of discomfort or getting choked, detachment from the surroundings, sweating, numbness, lightheadedness, and there is intense fear of dying.

A lot of people who have experienced a panic attack feel like they are having a heart attack, that many of them end up in trips to emergency room as an attempt to seek treatment. But panic attack is often overlooked as a potential cause for symptoms like palpitations, lightheadedness, and difficulty in breathing.

What Causes a Panic Attack

The thing with panic attack is that it can happen without warning. It can even happen while you're in a seemingly safe place like a shopping center or park.

There are different reasons why these panic attacks happen. It can be due to your family history, stress, and anxiety.

There is some evidence showing that genes can play a role in one's chance of having these panic attacks. You are more likely to have them if you have a family member who has suffered from panic disorder.

Panic attacks can also be due to stress. When we're stressed our fight or flight response is easily triggered. However, in contrast to what many people think, panic attacks are not responses to a one-time stressful event but rather, a result from accumulated stress.[1] This is what researchers from Brown University have found out.

These attacks can also happen as a result of anxiety. To a certain extent, anxiety can be beneficial for survival. But high levels of anxiety can send massive signals to the amygdala, part of the brain responsible for anxious response. This sends the amygdala into overdrive, triggering the production of the fight or flight hormone (adrenaline). When there's a lot of unused adrenaline in the body, it can build up and lead to panic attack.

How to Deal With Panic Attacks

Panic attacks may make you feel like you've lost control of things but know that there is something you can do to deal with it. Here are some ways on how to cope with your panic attack:
  • Awareness Knowledge plays an important role when it comes to dealing with panic attacks. Having a clear understanding on how the brain, particularly the amygdala, works during this fight or flight response can help you manage the symptoms especially when confronted with the overwhelming feeling of fear. 
  • Capnometry-Assisted Respiratory Training (CART) A study from the Southern Methodist University in Dallas revealed that CART is an effective technique for alleviating short-term panic disorder symptoms, reducing one's chance of getting panic attacks.[2] CART is a form of therapy that makes use of biofeedback to address both the psychological and physiological symptoms of panic attacks. During the training phase of the treatment, individuals will be using a capnometer, a device used to measure oxygen and carbon dioxide levels, heart rate, and breathing rate. Typically, during a panic attack, a person is advised to do deep breathing. But according to researchers, this isn't a good practice as it can only make the person more prone to hyperventilation. When a person hyperventilates, he/she expels more carbon dioxide which causes numbness and feeling of suffocation. With CART, a person is less prone to hyperventilate and is more likely to reverse the symptoms of a panic attack.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) CBT is a proven practice for managing panic attacks and anxiety disorders. It makes use of certain techniques including cognitive restructuring (replacing catastrophic thoughts with more reasonable beliefs), mindfulness (learning to accept fight or flight sensation as it comes), and exposure which eventually helps in reducing discomfort when dealing with panic-provoking situations.
  • Hypnotherapy Hypnotherapy has been proven to benefit those who have anxiety and panic disorders. As a hypnotherapist, I can help you deal with panic attacks by using techniques to make you relax deeply so you can be more open to coping suggestions.These subconscious suggestions will come to your conscious mind to help you deal with a panic attack.
Dealing with panic attacks are never easy especially when the intense fear of dying overwhelms you. But know that no matter how frequent or severe your panic attacks are, there's help available for you.
References: [1] →,. "Panic Can Build Gradually From Chronic Stress | Psych Central News". Psych Central News. N.p., 2011. Web. 28 June 2016. [2] Science, Live. "To Stave Off Panic, Don't Take A Deep Breath". Live Science. N.p., 2010. Web. 28 June 2016.