During stressful situations, anyone can feel anxious. A rapid heartbeat, sweaty palms, and some butterflies in the stomach are all normal reactions to stressful events like presentations, big events, etc. But when feelings of anxiety become overwhelming and make it impossible to function normally, you may be dealing with a panic attack. And if you are, then getting them under control starts with developing an understanding of how panic attacks happen.
Part of the issue in identifying panic attacks is that they are often confused for anxiety attacks, or vice versa. Keep reading for critical information on anxiety vs. panic attacks, how panic attacks happen, and how to get professional mental health treatment.
Is a Panic Attack the Same as an Anxiety Attack?
In order to better understand how panic attacks happen, you first need to understand exactly what an anxiety attack is. Not to be confused with an anxiety attack, a panic attack is an intense physical and behavioral response to fear. In addition, these attacks can occur anywhere, last up to 30 minutes, and can happen regardless of an underlying trigger.
Perhaps the biggest reason that panic attacks and anxiety attacks are so often confused is that they present with such similar symptoms. These often include:
- Heart palpitations or an accelerated heart rate
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
- Chills or hot flashes
- Trembling or shaking
- Numbness or tingling (paresthesia)
- Nausea, abdominal pain, or upset stomach
- Feeling faint or dizzy
- Intense fear of dying
However, there are noticeable differences in how symptoms present for each of these issues. Specifically, panic attacks do not need an outside trigger to begin—symptoms can start for no discernable reason. On the other hand, anxiety attacks need an outside event or stressful situation to begin.
There may also be a difference in the severity of the symptoms brought about by anxiety attacks vs. panic attacks. Anxiety attacks tend to be more short-lived and severe, whereas anxiety attacks can last for hours, albeit with more mild symptoms. This is the prevailing distinction between the two issues, since their causes tend to be similar.
When looking at how panic attacks happen in order to differentiate them from anxiety attacks, it’s important to note that both issues can be caused by a variety of mental health conditions. Notably, anxiety and panic attacks can be caused by:
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Panic disorder
- Separation anxiety disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Social anxiety disorder
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
Now that you have a clear understanding of panic attacks and what differentiates them from anxiety attacks, it’s time to delve into how panic attacks happen and what you can do about them.
How Panic Attacks Happen
Figuring out how panic attacks happen can go a long way to helping you circumvent them. Panic attacks are caused by a disruption in the limbic system, which controls our emotional and behavioral responses. This system is made up of interconnected structures found in the brain. There are four main structures in the limbic system that affect one’s ability to process emotions: the limbic cortex, amygdala, hippocampus, and hypothalamus.
- Limbic cortex: This part of the brain is made up of two structures called the parahippocampal gyrus and the cingulate gyrus, and they are responsible for mood, judgment, and motivation.
- Hypothalamus: Not only is the hypothalamus responsible for managing emotional responses, but it also affects hormones, sexual responses, and body temperature.
- Amygdala: The amygdala gives critical information about how to react depending on environmental stressors and helps process emotions such as pleasure or fear.
- Hippocampus: The hippocampus helps protect and recover memories. It also plays a role in how people understand the spatial dimensions of their environment.
This is how panic attacks happen—by disrupting normal activity in these crucial areas of the brain. This results in the feelings of fear, paranoia, and intense adrenaline that are all the hallmarks of a panic attack. By causing hyperactivity in the limbic system, panic attacks trigger the fight-or-flight response in your brain.
In other words, panic attacks trigger your fight-or-flight regardless of whether or not you are in danger. And while they can come on for seemingly no reason, there are underlying causes of panic attacks. For example, any of the following can cause panic attacks:
- Chronic stress: Feelings of stress can produce high quantities of chemicals like adrenaline. And over time, the buildup of these chemicals can result in a panic attack, even though there is seemingly nothing there to trigger the fight-or-flight response.
- Acute stress: Short-term stress can also cause panic attacks by temporarily flooding the brain with adrenaline and other chemicals and hormones that stimulate the limbic system.
- Excessive caffeine intake: Caffeine can heighten alertness, but it can also play a role in how panic attacks happen. As a stimulant, caffeine can make the body feel overly alert, helping to induce feelings of stress and fear.
- Medications: Different types of medications may have side effects that can cause feelings of panic and distress, even if they are intended as anti-anxiety treatments.
- Overwhelming environments: Areas that are too loud or bright can also trigger the fight-or-flight response. If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed in large crowds or noisy areas, then these situations may contribute to your panic attacks.
Now that you know more about how panic attacks happen, it’s time to delve into what you can do to treat them.
Treatment for Panic Attacks
Some individuals who suffer from extreme panic attacks cannot live a healthy, everyday life. But there is hope with the help of evidence-based therapies and professional medication management. The Willough at Naples’ adult psychiatric program provides intensive treatment for individuals battling medical, emotional, and psychiatric issues in a safe and secure setting.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most widely used and effective therapies to help you learn how panic attacks happen. This type of therapeutic technique teaches people how to recognize and change unhelpful thinking patterns. By altering your daily patterns and behaviors, you can learn to minimize your panic attacks and regain control when you feel one coming on.
In addition to CBT, you also have the chance to participate in the following programs:
- Psychiatric evaluations
- Group therapy
- Family counseling
- Recreational therapy
- Discharge and aftercare planning
In addition to therapy, certain medications are common in treating panic attacks. And if you’re already on anti-anxiety medication, then professional evaluation can help determine if it’s helping or hurting you.
Medications used to relieve how panic attacks happen include:
- Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs): This type of medication is generally safe to use with a doctor’s prescription. Furthermore, SSRIs have a low risk of harmful side effects and are sometimes advised as the first choice of medications to treat panic attacks. Commonly prescribed SSRIs include fluoxetine (Prozac), paroxetine (Paxil and Pexeva) and sertraline (Zoloft).
- Serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs): Similar to SSRIs, SNRIs include serotonin and norepinephrine. Norepinephrine is known to help with chronic pain as well as depression and panic attacks. Venlafaxine (Effexor XR) is an FDA approved SNRI for someone diagnosed with panic disorder.
- Benzodiazepines: Benzodiazepines are central nervous system (CNS) depressants that work to relieve panic attacks quickly rather than over time. Unlike SSRIs and SNRIs, benzodiazepines are typically used as a fast, short-term solution because they can lead to mental or physical dependence. FDA approved benzodiazepines for treating panic conditions include alprazolam (Xanax) and clonazepam (Klonopin).
Get Help for Your Panic Attacks Today
If you are tired of constantly suffering from panic attacks and are ready to get help to better your mental health, reach out to us today. Contact our admissions office at 800-722-0100 or submit a confidential contact form online.
Now that you know more about how panic attacks happen, it is time to take back control of your life. With the help and support of The Willough at Naples staff, you can lead a healthy life free from panic attacks.