Have you ever found yourself covered in cold sweat? Was your breathing rapid and your heart rate accelerated? You may have been experiencing symptoms of a panic attack. But… what is a panic attack?
According to a study by Clinical Psychologist and Associate Director of The Johns Hopkins Bayview Anxiety Disorders Clinic, Neda Gould, a panic attack is what the body and mind experience when a person is faced with something that makes him/her feel anxious. She says that when someone is having a panic attack, it is basically the body’s defence system reacting and sending signals to the body and mind that there is “danger”. The ‘attack’ then serves as a form of warning from the body to the mind to escape whatever it is that is causing us to feel anxious.
Are panic attacks different from anxiety attacks?
They are. While anxiety attacks are not recognised as a disorder, panic attacks are. Dr. Gould says that most people tend to confuse the two. Panic attacks are more intense, can cause disruptions to your day and are very sudden. Meanwhile, symptoms of anxiety can range from mild to severe and take as little as a few minutes to as long as days to develop. Meanwhile, while panic attacks appear suddenly, they disappear just as suddenly and don’t last more than 10 minutes. Anxiety symptoms will last for as long as the “stressor” (the subject of the anxiety) is still present.
What are the symptoms of a panic attack?
According to the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), a panic attack is “the rapid onset of intense fear plus at least four additional anxiety-provoking physical or psychological symptoms”. So other than fear, a full-fledged panic attack will include a few of these symptoms:
• Shortness of breath or hyperventilation
Fear can take one’s breath away just as easily as a romantic gesture. People who experience a panic attack often find it hard to breathe, either choking on air or having their breathing turn into short gasps for air.
It is common to panic when in a room full of people (especially in a room full of strangers) but people who experience panic attacks also often find themselves disconnected from reality. When this happens, it’s coined “derealization” and involves the person experiencing the attack to feel disconnected from the environment and even the people that are around them. Depersonalization, on the other hand, has people feeling as if their body is not their own, as if they were watching themselves move through the situation from a third-person view.
• Feeling dizzy, light-headed, or faint
The sudden onslaught of fear can be overwhelming, causing you to feel faint and on the verge of collapse. Multiple people have also reported blacking out.
• Trembling or shaking / Heart palpitations or racing heart
This physical reaction to a panic attack will mean that your heart feels as if it’s trying to break out of your ribcage. Your hands can shake and your legs can lose their strength. Often, these symptoms tend to linger even after the attack is over.
Is it a heart attack or a panic attack?
Because a panic attack has similar symptoms as a heart attack (palpitations, shortness of breath), there can be confusion. One of the key differences is that heart attacks tend to happen when the person is actively moving (like during exercise) while another difference is that heart attacks tend to worsen over time. When this happens, the individual will experience squeezing pain and/or pressure in the chest, pain that travels through the arm, jaw or shoulder blades and will experience this pain for a lengthy amount of time. Panic attacks will subside within 10 to 20 minutes.
• Fear of dying, losing control, or going crazy
Panic attacks – when allowed to spiral out of control – can leave one feeling as if you could die, as if you were losing control of yourself and even push one towards insanity. Panic attacks that occur frequently can force individuals to isolate themselves in the hopes that they can stop feeling the way they do.
Guys, please don’t let it get this far!
Don’t be too ashamed to get treatment
For those of you who have panic attacks, don’t be afraid or embarrassed to get help or treatment. At the end of the day, you are going home to yourself and you are living with yourself. Society has no right to judge you for wanting to take care of yourself. Heck, panic attacks are so common that at least one in 10 people experience it on occasion. If you or someone you know are experiencing any of the abovementioned symptoms, you can contact the Malaysian Mental Health Association (MMHA) or BefriendersKL for guidance.
Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and should not be a substitute for medical advice. We understand that everyone’s situation is unique, and this article was written in the hopes it will help alleviate anxiety where possible. Anxiety is complex, and this post does not take into account the unique circumstances for every individual. For specific questions about your health needs or that of a loved one, seek the guidance of your doctor or other qualified health professional with any questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition. Never disregard the advice of a medical professional, or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this Website.