Definition: what is a panic attack?
A panic attack, or an anxiety attack, is an episode of intense fear of dying or losing all control. They occur quite suddenly and can last from a few minutes to a few hours.
If everyone can suffer from a panic attack, this is when it has become chronic and proves problematic. It is estimated that around 10% of the population suffers from an isolated panic attack each year, with the majority being women and young people (15-45 years old).
Symptoms: how to recognise a panic attack
Panic attacks have numerous physical symptoms that involve intense fear or fright: tachycardia (increase in heart rate), heart palpitations, shivering, cold sweats, shortness of breath (feeling suffocated or strangled, difficulty in finding your breath), chest pain, dizziness, discomfort, nausea and vomiting. These signs occur suddenly and on average last for half an hour. Panic attacks can also occur when sleeping.
These physical problems are also accompanied by mental issues. Someone who is suffering from a panic attack can experience dark thoughts due to feeling like they have lost control of their emotions or actions. This then converts into different fears: of dying, going crazy, passing out, or even of having a heart attack or a stroke.
Causes of a panic attack
If a panic attack is spontaneous (without a triggering element), it is most often triggered by an underlying issue. This could be a phobia of an object or a situation (agoraphobia for example). In these cases, the attack often doesn’t last too long.
It can be explained by a panic disorder due to recent social trauma (death, divorce, accidents, etc.) or depression. The cause of a panic attack can also be much further in the past and result from an old trauma which has just resurfaced. It is in these cases in which it is known as post-traumatic stress disorder.
Some drugs (hallucinogens, cocaine, amphetamines) or medication can cause a panic attack.
Treatment: how to stop a panic attack
When dealing with a panic attack, the first thing to do is to concentrate on your breathing. This is because slowing it down (by breathing into a paper bag for example) can help to ease this discomfort. A doctor can prescribe anxiolytics (particularly benzodiazepine) which help to alleviate symptoms. But be careful, because you can become addicted to these and there are some secondary effects.
When you feel dark thoughts linked to an attack coming on, it is recommended to try to think about something else to limit the effects of the vicious cycle (fear can cause symptoms which worsen the fear).
Long-term treatment is intended to treat the trauma or the phobia at the source of a panic attack. This is done in therapy known as cognitive behavioural therapy and involves many meetings in groups and individually.