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More than just that anxious feeling: Understanding panic attacks
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More than just that anxious feeling: Understanding panic attacks

Panic attacks can be debilitating and severely affect the quality of your life. However, medication and therapy can help manage them
panic attack
Representational image | Shutterstock

“I would get frequent panic attacks and when the episodes got severe and uncontrollable, I even began to harm myself,” says Tomalika Roy. That is when the Bengaluru-based special educator sought medical help. “It was only after I started therapy and medications the episodes reduced and now, I don’t suffer from those attacks anymore.”  

Like Tomalika, the first step towards managing panic attacks is to recognise that you need help and then seek help and get yourself diagnosed. Panic disorders vary from person to person and cannot be cured entirely. However, medication and therapy can help manage them so that they do not impair your life. 

Is there a difference between panic attack and anxiety attack? 

We all feel anxious sometime or the other. Anxiety is our body’s natural response to stress and stress is inevitable. It can result from work, relationships, or our daily life activities. However, how do we know when it is just that anxious feeling or something more? 

Even though the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, anxiety attack and panic attack are not the same. While the feeling associated with a panic attack is the same as an anxiety attack, panic attacks are more intense. “A panic attack is an episode of intense fear. It starts with a lot of intensity but does not last long, maybe for about 10 to 15 minutes”, says Deepanwita Roy, a clinical psychologist associated with mfine – Novocura Tech Health Services. Panic disorders are characterised by episodes of panic attacks, which are accompanied by physical symptoms.  

While anxiety builds up gradually, panic attacks are more sudden and abrupt in nature. You can also experience anxiety and panic attack at the same time, with anxiety culminating in a panic attack. In a panic attack, the body’s flight or fight response (a physiological response when the body decides to either fight back or flee) takes over.  

“An anxiety attack is associated with a trigger. In a panic attack, the feeling remains the same but there is no trigger,” says Deepanwita. “It also feels more severe because of its physical nature. Many say it ‘feels like a heart attack’.” An anxiety attack, on the other hand, is experienced more frequently and can result in an anxiety disorder. 

“I usually cry, gasp due to breathlessness and even pass out when I get a panic attack. Sometimes when I feel the onset of an attack, I purposely sleep to avoid it,” says Zubin Thomas, a Kolkata-based web and app developer.  

Understanding daytime and nocturnal panic attacks 

Daytime panic attack can happen at any time of the day. While nocturnal panic attack happens either right before waking up or while sleeping. However, if you are experiencing nocturnal panic attacks it is likely that you will experience it during the day, too.  

“There is usually not much difference between the two kinds of panic attacks. There could be underlying reasons behind nocturnal panic attacks like disturbed sleep, sleep disorders, or some ongoing stressors,” says Deepanwita. “The treatment for both, however, remains the same. Cognitive behavioural therapy is one mode of treatment that is available, relaxation therapy and even exposure therapy can help.” 

It is also important to note that nocturnal panic attacks are different from night terrors. Even though the symptoms are the same, in night terrors, you may not be aware of the episode while in a panic attack you are.  

What can you do if you are experiencing panic attacks? 

“Ideally, if you are experiencing such attacks, don’t self-diagnose. Get in touch with a psychiatrist or a clinical psychologist to know exactly what you are facing,” says Deepanwita. She suggests taking five minutes to do some grounding activities and breathing exercises. “You can do this simple exercise: take in a breath of air, hold it for some time (you can count till 5) and release it from your mouth. It will eventually help you with breathlessness.”  

Considering lifestyle contributes to such attacks, she suggests eating on time and exercising on a regular basis. 

Symptoms of a panic attack: 

  • Sense of impending doom 
  • Fear of loss of control 
  • Breathlessness 
  • Severe sweating 
  • Chest pain 
  • Trembling 
  • Nausea  
  • Sweating 
  • Hot flashes 
  • Chills 
  • Weakness or dizziness 
  • Self-harming tendencies 
  • Racing heartbeat 

Some tips to help you cope during an attack: 

  • Close your eyes 
  • Take deep breaths 
  • Find an object you can focus on 
  • Use muscle relaxation techniques 
  • Count from 1 to 5 with every breath you take in and every breath you let out 
  • Use the 3-3-3 rule: Move three parts of your body and point out three things you can see 
  • Close your eyes and focus on your breathing 
  • Challenge anxious thoughts 
  • Meditate 
  • Speak to a friend 
  • Seek medical help 

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