Anxiety is a spooky disorder and it is the most common mental health disorder in the USA affecting at least 18% of the population according to the ADAA (Anxiety and Depression Association of America). There is not a true difference between an Anxiety attack and a Panic attack; these terms are interchangeable. My preference is to call them Panic attacks.
These attacks occur for people affected with different anxiety disorders and it is seen as a symptom of an anxiety disorder, but people who have a panic attack due to the fear of having a panic attack are diagnosed with Panic Disorder which is commonly in addition to another anxiety or depressive disorder or other mental illness and is rarely diagnosed as a standalone disorder.
Feeling a chill, you get goose bumps down your neck and down your arms. The hair is standing up and you can feel your skin, some even say it feels like their skin is electric or vibrating. This feeling and the goose bumps happens frequently for people who have anxiety. Goose bumps and feeling your skin (different sensations for different people) is a common symptom of anxiety.
For me this feeling and the goose bumps are a warning to me that I am about to have a Panic attack or an anxiety attack. I have been diagnosed with PTSD, Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), and Panic Disorder with Agoraphobia. I had struggled with these disorders since I was a teenager and then being in a highly abusive relationship re-enforced my mental health disorders.
In 2010, I had enough of the debilitating nature of these disorders and I had hit the peak of severity as well as hit rock bottom in my abusive relationship. I finally had the courage to seek help in getting out the abusive relationship and I began to take a look at myself. I realized I needed help with me as well.
I needed to make changes and start to conquer my disorders. I had enough of being controlled. I was ready to be in control of my disorders and of my own life. As someone who has multiple different anxiety disorders, I have experienced a variety of panic and anxiety attacks. I sought professional therapeutic help and thus began my journey toward recovery through cognitive behavior therapy techniques.
Learning about Panic Attacks
The first step to making changes is to realize that changes need to be made. I had that plus motivation! Next I needed to learn more about Panic attacks and about the anxiety disorders that were affecting me. With this post as well as my post about trauma, which is found here, I hope to help others understand more about these disorders and their symptoms.
There are over 15 different anxiety disorders, not including OCD Disorders, listed in the most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) which lists the criteria for mental health disorders including symptoms of those disorders. Each of these disorders has the potential to have the symptom of having Panic attacks.
While some experience just a few symptoms during each panic attack, others may experience most or all of the symptoms at once. Also the symptoms experienced may vary with each panic attack and between different people. Some people who have panic attacks will experience the same few symptoms each time. The point here is no one experiences Anxiety the same as someone else.
A key factor to Panic attacks is that they typically hit a person without warning and many times without real reasons. Panic attacks can be normal for people who face crisis situations, like a car accident or someone breaking into their house, but for people with anxiety disorders panic attacks are not rational and happen without a realistic cause.
Panic attacks tend to peak within a few minutes and this peak normally last 10 minutes or longer. Feeling worn out and tired is very common after the panic attack subsides. According to DSM-V, at least 4 or more of the following symptoms must occur simultaneously for someone to be considered having a Panic attack. If less than 4 are present, than it is simply called having some anxiety.
Symptoms of Panic Attacks:
Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
Sweating, clammy palms
Trembling or shaking
Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering/unable to breathe
Feelings of choking
Chest pain or discomfort including but not limited to tightness, heaviness, and pain
Nausea or abdominal distress (may vomit)
Feeling dizzy, unsteady, light-headed, or faint
Chills or heat sensations
Paresthesia (numbness or tingling sensations)
Fear of losing control or “going crazy” and/or feeling as though you are
Fear of dying and/or feeling as though you are
Derealization - is when you have thoughts and/or feelings of unreality
Depersonalization - is when you have the feeling of being detached from oneself (like feeling out of body)
A More Uncommon Type of Panic Attack
Some people may experience a less common type of panic attack called an impending doom panic attack which is when a person has a strong overwhelming feeling of fear disproportionate to reality and they feel as though someone or something is going to get them. The latter feeling is one that can be both delusional and paranoid or it can be one or the other.
I was unfortunate that I had numerous impending doom panic attacks. I was afraid of monsters in the shadows and behind corners. I believed during an impending doom panic attack that there really were monsters and that they were going to jump out at me to maim and kill me. I would be on the edge of edge, more than just jumpy, when in this state and any little surprise or unexpected noise would startle me to the bone.
Within seconds of these attacks subsiding, I would break free of those delusions and I would feel childish and silly for having thought and believed such nonsense. But during these attacks nothing could convince me of the truth, that monsters aren’t real. I even stopped watching monster movies, horror, for a few years thinking this would help me by preventing new ideas of spooky scary monsters from slipping into my memory to be used against me later during a Panic attack.
Anxiety is Treatable
There is help for anyone who has Panic attacks. Professional therapists are out there who specialize in helping people learn how to cope with having panic attacks. Some people are able to get to the root cause of their fears and the reasons behind why they are having attacks. Once that issue is resolved, panic attacks tend to diminish and go away.
For others, the reason why can’t be resolved completely and those people need to learn better coping skills and what works for them to stop a panic attack when they happen. For some, medication is what helps them most, but this is not a long term solution. It would be much better to resolve the issues causing the attacks and learn how to cope with them.
Exposure therapy and Self-talk are two techniques that helped me.
When faced with my delusions, I began to challenge them with self-talk. I would talk to myself in my head questioning my thoughts and stopping them from continuing, like changing the subject in a conversation, I would change what I was thinking about and this would help to end the panic attack. This was the most valuable technique I learned on how to stop a Panic attack from escalating and at times I could stop an attack in its beginning. Self-talk is also very good for giving me confidence and reassurance. I use self-talk with exposure therapy as well as by itself.
Exposure therapy is when I would put myself in uncomfortable situations that caused me great anxiety and could throw me into a panic attack on purpose and with the intent to stay in that situation for as long as it took for me to start feeling comfortable with it. I would start small and increase the difficultly as I mastered the lesser tasks.
Example of Exposure Therapy
I was afraid of the shadows and darkness. I learned through self-exploration that this was really me being scared of the unknown since I can’t see in the dark that well and seeing in the shadow is also difficult. Fearing the unknown is not something I can just get over or resolve. So I started small by trying to sit in dimmer light while working on homework or blogging. This made me uncomfortable but not too much. That uncomfortable feeling went away and it felt easy to sit in the dimly lit living room.
Next I turned all the lights off in the living room and surrounding rooms, but did this only during the day. It was even dimmer, but some light from outside still shown through and gave me some light. I was once again uncomfortable with this, but not too much. And once again over time and repetition, that uncomfortable feeling went away and it was easy.
Finally, I made it most difficult by doing that same no lights on at night. Now I was very uncomfortable, but not nearly as much as I was in the beginning before I went through this process. Although I was uncomfortable in total darkness, I was no longer feeling a panic attack coming on. I was able to handle that darkness without the delusional fears creeping into my mind. I continued to work in total darkness until that too became comfortable and it was easy. And now I no longer fear the darkness and I haven’t had a panic attack from the darkness in over 2 years!
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