It can happen to anyone – a psychological and emotional attack that quickens the heart rhythm, accompanied with nervous sweating and blurring of vision; ultimately giving you the sensation that you are ‘gone for good’.
Panic attacks occur unexpectedly, sometimes even when waking up from sleep. Panic disorder usually begins in adulthood (after age 20), but children can also have panic disorder and many children experience panic-like symptoms. 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 medications, 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 relieve 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 is important to define what does the term mean.
A panic attack is 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 what is at the core of panic attacks: brief periods on visceral and intense fear.
One theory about panic attacks and panic disorder explains that they both result from an abnormal activity inside a set of nerves that exist in the amygdala.
Dr Paul Li, however, on an article in 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, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are usually prescribed to people who 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, where you regularly have sudden attacks of panic or fear.
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 behaviour when facing the attacks.
Panic attacks are common and do not set panic disorder just by themselves. Nevertheless, when panic attacks become recurrent and when physical and psychological fatigue happens frequently anticipating the next attack, this might be a panic disorder.
Ana Pinto-Coelho is an addiction counsellor. Ana finished her degree from the University of Oxford and is committed to advancing her profession in Portugal.