Friday, October 30, 2015

Spooky Thoughts, Spooky Feelings: Panic Attacks and Symptoms

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!

This has been a post in response to Fabulous Fridays weekly prompts linkup. This week’s prompt is Spooky. Interpret the prompt any way you wish, but be sure to link up with us!

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  1. This was very informative and helpful. From this description, I can see that my panic attacks are caused by something other than anxiety. A few months ago, I was walking with a group. We had to walk on a highway overpass. There was no sidewalk. There was traffic noise next to me and underneath me. I could not tell where the noise was coming from. It felt as if the cars were driving over me. I stopped and had to go back. I could not go over the bridge. I have phobias and I have sensory and auditory processing disorders. My friend came to pick me up in her car to drive me over the frightening overpass. I cried from fear and maybe from shame. My friend said that she understood. I told her that I could not tell where my body was in space because of the terrible overstimulation. After about ten minutes, though, I had recovered. Thanks be to God!!!

    1. To me this sounds like depersonalization, kind of like an out of body type experience and it does kind of sound like a panic attack, but from realistic fear. There was real danger there! This was not anxiety disorder, but a natural response to the perceived real danger of the passing cars. It is normal in those situations to have some anxiety and apprehension, but without having at least 4 symptoms present it wasn't a full blown panic attack. I wouldn't be concerned about this experience, even if it was a full blown panic attack, in my opinion it sound a fairly normal response to real danger.
      Thank you for reading. And I'm glad it was helpful!

  2. This was such an informative article Emily. Well done! I used to read up on panic attacks when I was going through a harder period in my life, ending up "diagnosing myself" in having such. Although, I don't have it, I can relate to many of these feelings that you're writing about. It's hard to live with anxiety, and to have actual panic attacks regularly can be life challenging, without the right therapy and possible combination therapy of medication as well. It's beautiful and eye opening that you're writing so openly about this and helping others. Good for you, and way to go! Three cheers for you! :)

    1. Thank you! It has taken years of working hard on myself to get to the point I have with my mental health issues. I have come to a place where I can safely say I have overcome having panic attacks and I am now able to handle stressful situation much easier!

  3. This is such an informative post for people suffering from anxiety or panic disorder. I love the way you broke down steps and how it manifests in your body. Thank you so much for sharing!

  4. This is such a great advice, I'm so thankful that I haven't this type of disorder.

  5. Panic attacks sound so awful. I feel for the people who have them.

  6. I had no idea it was this diverse. Thank you sharing information about panic attacks and anxiety, I learned a lot today. I admire you for being brave and standing up for what you deserve. You are so amazing!

  7. I think I had this disorder, I had times that when I'm in fears I'm being panic.

  8. Very useful article.. anxiety is a very serious thing. Get help and discuss with physician

  9. I have severe anxiety and I like that you showed how it can affect the body as well as mentally. Some people don't relaize how bad anxiety can be.

  10. I suffer from panic attacks now and then if my doctor is right (not certain of that myself). I didn't even realize I was having them but in my doctors office early last year, I was bouncing my leg like crazy because my pain level was out of control and my physician told me that was a panic attack.

  11. I have had a few panic attacks in large crowds before. I actually passed out once.

  12. This was a great article and filled with information. It's no fun suffering from these disorders and it's nice to have supportive people around you to help you through it.

  13. Lots of information here for all of us

  14. I used to have panic attacks, thankfully my situation changed and I haven't had them in years. It sounds like you have developed a technique on how to deal with them. I as the opposite of you and tended to get panic attacks from being in dark enclosed rooms, so getting outside and getting fresh air helped most with me.

  15. This is a very informative article on panic attacks. I think more people should become aware of the symptoms. I'm glad you have found a way to deal with your attacks.

  16. there is a lot of misunderstanding when it comes to panic attacks and symptoms. people who haven't experienced that may not think that they are serious but i know they are. this is great to help people understand more

  17. You described this really well. I've suffered with panic attacks for years and find them quite hard to explain to people who have never had them. This is a great post to help with that!

  18. This article is very useful. It's a great resource for people people who often feel this way.

  19. There are so many ways anxiety can affect our bodies and minds. This is something that should be taken very seriously. I am glad you a encouraging the conversation.

  20. You know I never had a problem with anxiety until lately - but I've noticed it some lately. I don't have horrible attacks, but my mom does and it can be a very scary time.

  21. Exposure therapy is something that can help so many. I have dealt with anxiety my whole life and have used exposure therapy. I have not yet been able to sleep without the tv on every night unless someone is sleeping with me so kudos to you. The thought of it almost freezes my body or takes my breath away a little. Doing this will be a huge step for me.

  22. Self-talk can really help at times facing our issues in life and included with this is what we call panic attack. Sometimes it's good to reflect in one's self and try some tests in real life. Very helpful article. Thank you so much for sharing this to your readers