It is a normal part of life to feel stress at certain times. But sometimes people feel levels of anxiety that are so high, they experience a state of panic.
A panic attack is a sudden, intense fear or anxiety that may make you short of breath, dizzy or make your heart pound. If you or someone you know have experienced panic attacks, you know they can be challenging, upsetting, and very scary.
During a panic attack, you may feel out of control. Some people believe that they are having a heart attack or are about to die.
An attack usually lasts anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes but can be longer. And the anxiety may come and go in waves. Even though it feels alarming, it is important to remember that you are going to be okay, and that the feeling will pass.
At times, people may experience panic attacks often, which is called panic disorder.
What causes panic attacks?
Your body has a natural response when it is stressed or thinks it is in danger. As part of this response, your heart can speed up, you may breathe faster, and have a sudden, large burst of energy. This is called the fight-or-flight response. This happens so your body is ready to face danger or run from it. However, in the case of a panic attack, this response happens even though you are not in immediate and physical danger.
Experts aren't sure what causes panic attacks and panic disorder, and there is sometimes no clear cause.
Panic attacks can be brought on by:
- A health problem, such as thyroid, heart or breathing problems.
- Depression or another mood disorder.
- Heavy alcohol use, using too much nicotine or too much caffeine, or drug use.
- Taking certain medicines, like those used to treat asthma or heart problems.
- Increased stress in your life or stressful life events.
What does a panic attack look like?
Symptoms of a panic attack may include:
- A feeling of intense fear or anxiety.
- Trouble breathing or very fast breathing.
- Chest pain or tightness.
- A heartbeat that races or isn't regular.
- Nausea or an upset stomach.
- Dizziness and shaking.
- Numbness or tingling.
- Tunnel vision.
Symptoms of panic disorder may include:
- Repeated panic attacks when there is no immediate physical threat.
- Changing your daily activities because you worry that you will have another attack.
Sometimes people are afraid of having a panic attack in public, fearing crowded places or leaving home. This is called agoraphobia. People with agoraphobia often avoid being in places or situations where it may be challenging to leave quickly.
People with panic disorder may also experience depression at the same time. There isn’t anything wrong with you, and one of the strongest and bravest things you can do is seek help with what you are going through.
Get help for panic attacks
If you are often experiencing panic attacks, or they get in the way of your daily activities, you may want to consider reaching out for help. There isn’t anything wrong with you, and one of the strongest and bravest things you can do is seek help with what you are going through.
You are not alone and there is support available that can help you. If you have panic attacks, getting help early in their onset can be beneficial.
A medical professional can help you to understand what may be causing your panic attacks. Treatments for panic attacks and panic disorder may include counselling like cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). Medication may also help.
Download the MindShift™ CBT app to use CBT strategies to learn about relaxation, being mindful, developing effective ways of thinking and using active steps to help with your anxiety.
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BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services (BCMHSU)
Providing mental health and substance use treatment to people with severe mental health and substance use challenges.
Hope for Wellness Help Line
Immediate help for Indigenous peoples. Phone and chat counselling available in English, French, Cree, Ojibway, and Inuktitut.
Tools, resources, anxiety plans and courses to help anyone living with anxiety.