Panic Attacks: What Are They?
The panic attacks they are sudden moments of intense fear and discomfort, in which we seem to die, go crazy or lose control. Panic Attack Disorder (PAD) is one of the most common anxiety disorders. It has a higher incidence in people between 15 and 19 years and between 25 and 30 years; moreover, according to some surveys, women are more likely to develop the disorder than men, with a double frequency. Suffering from panic attacks is an intense and often disabling experience and can have significant repercussions on a person’s quality of life.
How to recognize a panic attack?
During a panic attack the body is involved in a totalizing way: we feel a rapid heartbeat, excessive sweating or trembling hands and these sensations are so intense that we think we are about to die or go crazy. Not only that: a panic attack can also be recognized by other symptoms, such as chest pains, shortness of breath, nausea, dizziness, fainting, pins and needles and experiences of derealization and depersonalization, such as when we feel “in a bubble” and perceive reality or ourselves in a distant and unreal way. Fortunately, the panic attack it is a short-lived experience and its symptoms generally last only a few minutes.
Causes of panic attacks
Why do we get a panic attack?
The causes of panic attacks depend on theinteraction of biological, psychological and social factors and, for this reason, their development is different from person to person, even if they have some common aspects.
The brain has a series of responses to danger and implements the physical and mental activation necessary to react to the threatening stimulus. A family-transmitted genetic vulnerability has been found that leads some people to suffer more from panic attacks. In these cases, our warning mechanism may become excessively activated precisely because of this biological predisposition.
Our personal history, beliefs about ourselves, the world and others can influence the activation and intensity of our warning system. From a psychological point of view, anxiety can be due to a particular and specific attention towards some stimuli that we interpret as dangerous and from which we want to alert ourselves. In this context, stress also contributes to increasing our “catastrophic” interpretations and exponentially increasing perceived anxiety, to the point of triggering, in some cases, panic attacks.
There are many social factors that can activate the warning system and trigger the anxiety circuit. Consider, for example, the pandemic lockdown and the impact of this phenomenon on the perception of personal risk. Other examples are occupational burn-out, relational stress, but also changes and the redefinition of habits and one’s roles. Some social situations can be perceived as distressing to the point of triggering our alert system up to lead to the attack
What triggers a panic attack?
What is fear?
The fear it’s a’primary emotion which activates an automatic response following a stimulus, perceived as threatening. Like all emotions, it has its own evolutionary function, as it allows us to warn ourselves in dangerous situations: without fear, human beings would not have survived until today. When fear becomes the predominant emotion of our days, then we can talk about anxietyof which it is the central nucleus.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is an unpleasant emotional state that occurs very often throughout our lives. We have all experienced moments of anxiety. Think about the“performance anxiety”, when we have to face an important test, or the anxiety we feel when we are late and don’t have enough time to do everything.
Anxiety is a complex system of response to situations that we perceive as stressful or threatening and serves to protect us and
adequately analyze the context and the behaviors to implement. Anxiety allows us to activate the body: very often we manage this activation in a functional way, directing energy towards solving the problem, through attack or flight responses.
Anxiety attacks can be frequent in our daily lives and resolve themselves with functional actions.
However, if the anxiety becomes very intense and difficult to manage, its activation itself is demonstrated disabling: in this case we are talking about panic attack.
During a panic attack we have the feeling of having to have irreversible psychological and physical consequences. Fortunately this is not the case and panic attacks are the expression of intense anxiety, but which quickly tends to end.
The circle of anxiety
When we have to evaluate a stimulus, internal or external to our person, our biological predispositions, our psychological experience and the social context in which we are immersed come into play. The result of this interaction will lead us to interpret the same stimulus in a more or less catastrophic way.
When we feel particularly in danger, fear and the typical sensations of anxiety are activated. But we are not always able to recognize anxiety, since this is a complex state whose bodily manifestations can easily be confused with the symptoms of other pathologies.
Faced, for example, with increased sweating or heart rate triggered by anxiety, we will interpret these signals as symptoms of serious pathologies, further alarming us, and this “catastrophic filter” will amplify the intensity of perceived anxiety, fueling a vicious circle which, if not stopped, could eventually give rise to a panic attack.
How to behave in case of a panic attack?
What to do if I have a panic attack?
The panic attack has a beginning and an end but that doesn’t make it an impromptu episode. If we don’t face it with the right awareness, the panic attack could happen again in the course of life. For this reason it is important talk to a professional to start a work aimed at recognizing the symptoms, emotions and thoughts connected to the anxious state. With the specialist it will also be You can learn some strategies to use at the time of the panic attack.
There are several strategies to learn how to manage panic attacks and restore your balance in these difficult moments.
When we are experiencing a panic attack we will notice it often a change in the way we breathe. We feel short of breath and can often become short of breath. Learning to control the way you breathe, trying to slow it down in anxious situations, can help you feel more relieved and manage the urgency of the moment.
Also muscles may feel tighter in case of panic attacks: relaxing them through specific relaxation techniques can be a valid strategy to help us on those occasions.
The crucial role of therapy
“I must be happy”, “I can’t be sad” are just some of the phrases we repeat over and over again, convinced that they make us feel better and give us the illusion of “controlling” our moods. We are used to evaluate emotions as “positive” or “negative” and this evaluation inevitably leads us to a judgment and expectations regarding our emotional sphere.
Emotions try to talk to us and to give us valuable information: but, in order to maintain a balance, we tend to repress the information we don’t like. It’s just that, in addition to not succeeding, we get further frustrated at having lost control over them. This mechanism also occurs with fear and anxiety, when the shame of experiencing them is an additional burden to manage.
Unfortunately, it is not possible to “write off” unpleasant sensations, but it is It is important to learn to recognize and accept all emotions that we try, to avoid the risk that they claim their space in a violent and sudden way, as happens with panic attacks. It is important to seek the support of a specialist with whom you can learn to work with your emotions. Only by recognizing and accepting what we feel, it will be possible to manage panic attacks and allow us to restore our personal serenity.
How to handle a panic attack
How to handle a panic attack? Answers Dr. Matteo Radavelli, psychologist and psychotherapist of GuidaPsicologi.it
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