It can happen to anyone: an emotional attack that quickens the heart rhythm, nervous sweating and can blur your vision, ultimately giving you the sensation that you are “gone for good”.
Panic attacks, according to health specialists, are extremely common.Some people have this experience once or twice in their lives, others every time they have to speak in public or prepare themselves for an important interview. In severe cases, patients can feel themselves suffocating, almost fainting.
Apart from the so called “pharmacy solutions”, the best way to avoid panic attacks is to be able to identify the symptoms and learn how to take over them. That is: to relate to yourself the nuisance that comes with those attacks.
But, neurologically speaking what happens to the brain during a panic attack? As it happens with anxiety, paranoia, depression and other clinical terms that are present in our everyday language, a panic attack can mean very different things. Therefore it becomes primordial to better define what does the term mean.
Mayo Clinic researchers, an organisation in the scope of medical services and investigation, defined a panic attack as a “subtle episode of intense fear that triggers serious physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause”. Panic attacks can indeed be very frightening. When this occurs, the patient may think he is losing control, having a heart attack and in extreme cases that he is about to die. This is the best way possible to understand the genesis of panic attacks: brief periods on visceral and intense fear.
A theory about panic attacks and panic disorder, is that both result from an abnormal activity inside a set of nerves that exist in the amygdala (which is composed by compacted groups of neurons and appears as the integration centre for emotions, motivation and emotional behaviour, also known by the role it plays in fear and aggression).
Dr Paul Li however, on an article written for Scientific American blames the periaqueductal grey substance, which regulates the defence mechanisms. A study with mechanical resonances which discovered that this area reacts in response to imminent threats.
But what to do in case of a panic attack? “What if this happens again, what can I do?” The symptoms that arise from this sort of brain activity can generally be treated with medication. For example, serotonin nervous reaction inhibitors are usually prescribed to people that suffer panic attacks and constant anxiety. Moreover, psychotherapy or psychological counselling can also be very effective since they teach how to separate panic sensations from threat responses.
It should be added that the benefits of a less stressful way of life naturally have enormous advantages. Physical exercise, extra hours of sleep, as well as some relaxing techniques can be of great help as well.
Is it possible to consider panic attacks as a panic disorder synonymous? The answer is no. A panic attack, just like with headaches, is made out of a set of symptoms. Thus, panic attacks may come to be diagnosed as Panic Disorder when they start occurring with relevant regularity.
Quoting the Mental Health Dictionary, “Panic Disorder’s essential feature is the recurrent and unexpected presence of panic attacks, followed by a persistent concern of having another panic attack with the possible implications and consequences of such, or with a significant change of behavior when facing the attacks”.
That being said: panic attacks are common and do not set Panic Disorder just by themselves. Nevertheless, when panic attacks become recurrent in our mental health and when physical and psychological fatigue happens frequently anticipating the next attack, only then Panic Disorder diagnosis becomes more appropriated.
Ana Pinto-Coelho is an addiction counsellor who has gained her degree from the University of Oxford. She is committed to advancing her profession in Portugal. Currently, she runs a private practice in Lisbon, Portugal and her commitment is to help individuals, and their families, who are struggling with addiction. She believes that counselling is both an effective and safe means to self-understanding, and ultimately recovery. For this reason, she has called her clinic Safe Place. You can follow her on Twitter @AnaPintoCoelho1