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Panic attacks: Who Gets them? What are they? How long do they last? How do you get rid of them? I hadn’t give any of these questions much thought years ago because…well, as snobby and heartless as it sounds, I just never thought about it because it wasn’t part of my world.
I didn’t have them, I’d never seen anyone have one, nobody I knew had them, and I knew very little about them. They were in that category of conditions that ‘other people’ had. I had my own set of medical conditions to keep at bay. Then I became an adult, had kids to raise, responsibilities to juggle, a job where people depended on me, bills to pay, and then BOOM!
How My Curiosity About Panic Attacks Began
A long, long time ago…
I will never forget my first panic attack. I was a divorced mother of two. Both kids were in high school. My daughter was on the dance team, my son was in basketball and baseball. I played volleyball and had a passion for mountain biking. We were all busy, active, and happy.
Money was tight, but we were doing okay. I was a massage therapist, and also did medical transcription in office and as a freelancer at home. I was able to keep my work schedule flexible enough to allow me to attend all my kids activities.
At their high school, there were two gyms. On this particular day my daughter had an activity in the front gym, my son had a game in the back gym. I was rushing from work to get there in time to catch half of each of their events. Having stayed up too late because of a long night of typing, I was tired and looking forward to the last of this day’s activities.
As I approached the school, I noticed I felt kind of “spacey”, and a little bit short of breath. I assumed it was because I was moving fast, and didn’t think much of it, trusting I’d feel better once I got there.
After I parked, I was dashing down the hall toward the gym when I started feeling a bit dizzy. When I got to the gym door I stood there frozen. My body felt “tingly” all over. My face was hot, I was sweaty, and my head felt weird. This sounds odd, but, I could “feel” my eyes. Have you ever been “aware” of your eyes? Can’t explain it, except to say that it’s a really creepy feeling.
The first gym was full of activity and people pre-event. I needed to quickly find my daughter, but there I was, standing at the door of the gym like a deer in headlights, waiting to see what was going to happen next in my body.
What’s wrong with your mom?
Having attention drawn to me makes me really uncomfortable. Passing out on the gym floor would really worry my kids. Waking up after having passed out on a gym floor would really embarrass me. So I was grateful that my body chose to kick in to automatic pilot. Sweatin’ like a mutha, my head roaring, and feeling like my eyes were popping out of their sockets, I busted through that gym door, and quickly found my daughter to let her know I was there. All I needed to do then was get to the second gym, slip into the stands, and watch the first part of my son’s game.
But…just as I left my daughter and was super focused on making my way across the last half of the gym, I saw one of the teacher’s walking toward me, smiling and waving. N-o-o-o-o-o-o-o!!!!
Getting through that conversation and appearing to be capable, normal and sane, was the best performance of my life. It was also one of the most uncomfortable and frightening 10 minutes I’ve ever remembered spending with anyone. As panicky as I’d felt, and the speed and intensity that these strange feelings had presented themseves, at one point I truly thought I was going to die.
Spoiler alert: I didn’t. Although, unfortunately, this wouldn’t be the end of these attacks. Their recurrence created a situation that was something new to me – fearing being in public and having another one. A worse one. One that had more symptoms. I worried about what would happen if I didn’t snap out of it next time? What if it happened while I was driving? Was I putting my kids in danger because of this new inability to control my emotions? Because of the onslaught of all these fears and not having enough knowledge about what I was dealing with, I launched myself into some pretty intense research into the why’s and how’s of panic disorder. Here’s what I learned…
What Is a Panic Attack?
A panic attack is “a sudden and intense episode of overwhelming fear or anxiety”. It can be an extremely distressing experience for those who go through it. Panic attacks can occur unexpectedly, or they may be triggered by specific situations or stimulus.
During a panic attack, the body’s “fight or flight” response is triggered inappropriately, leading to a surge of adrenaline and other stress hormones. This response is usually meant to help us deal with real threats or dangerous situations, but in the case of a panic attack, it occurs in the absence of any immediate danger.
How Do I Know It’s Just a Panic Attack? What are the Symptoms?
Symptoms of a panic attack can vary from person to person, but typically include a combination of physical and psychological symptoms. Some common symptoms include:
- Rapid Heart Rate, (palpitations or pounding heart).
- Sweating and trembling, (or shaking).
- Shortness of Breath, (or feeling like you can’t breathe properly).
- Chest Pain, (or discomfort).
- Feeling Dizzy, (lightheaded or faint).
- Nausea, (or stomach discomfort).
- Numbness, (or tingling sensations).
- Chills, (or hot flashes).
- Fear of losing control, (or going crazy).
- Fear of dying.
- Sense of detachment from reality, (feeling disconnected from oneself).
- Intense fear or dread.
It’s important to note that a panic attack can vary in intensity and duration. Some panic attacks may last only a few minutes, while others can persist for long periods. People who experience panic attacks often report feeling extremely anxious, and may start to worry about having more attacks in the future, leading to a cycle of fear and anxiety.
It’s essential to seek help from a mental health professional if you, or someone you know, is experiencing panic attacks or anxiety symptoms, to receive proper evaluation and support. Treatments such as therapy and, in some cases, medication, can be effective in managing panic attacks and anxiety.
Are Panic Attacks More Common in Women or Men?
Research suggests that panic attacks are more common in women than in men. While panic disorder itself can affect people of all genders, studies have consistently shown a higher prevalence of panic attacks and panic disorder in women. Several factors contribute to this:
- Hormonal Factors: Hormonal changes, such as those that occur during the menstrual cycle, pregnancy, and menopause, can influence the occurrence and severity of panic attacks in women.
- Social and Cultural Factors: Societal and cultural factors can play a role in the higher prevalence of panic attacks in women. Women often face unique stressors and expectations that might contribute to anxiety and panic.
- Biological and Genetic Factors: Some studies suggest that there may be genetic and biological factors that predispose women to be more susceptible to panic attacks.
- Psychosocial Factors: Women may be more likely to seek help for their mental health issues, including panic attacks, leading to higher reported rates.
- Comorbidity with Anxeity and Mood Disorders: Panic attacks often co-occur with other anxiety disorders and mood disorders. Since women are generally more likely to experience anxiety and depression, this could contribute to the higher prevalence of panic attacks among women. It’s important to note that while women are more likely to experience panic attacks, these attacks can affect anyone, regardless of gender.
Are Panic Attacks Dangerous?
Panic attacks themselves are not physically dangerous. They do not cause any lasting physical harm or medical emergencies. However, they can be emotionally and psychologically distressing. The intense fear and physical sensations experienced during a panic attack can be overwhelming and can lead to significant distress and impairment in daily life.
One of the main concerns with panic attacks is the fear of having more attacks in the future, which can lead to a condition known as panic disorder. Panic disorder is an anxeity disorder characterized by recurrent panic attacks and persistent worry about having additional attacks. It may lead to avoidance of certain places or situations for fear of triggering another attack, which can significantly impact a person’s quality of life.
While panic attacks themselves are not dangerous, they can sometimes be mistaken for other medical conditions that cause similar symptoms, such as heart attacks. If you are unsure whether your symptoms are due to a panic attack or a medical emergency, it’s crucial to seek medical attention to rule out any other potential health issues.
That’s it for Part 1. We’ll dive a little deeper into panic attacks in older women and suggestions for ways to take control in Part 2 of this series coming soon.
Watch for Part 2 in this series…
- To learn ways to lessen the severity of a panic attack, and possibly even stop it before it takes hold.
- We’ll also look into tools, apps, and other devices and ways we can calm ourselves at the onset or during a panic attack.
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