Panic Attacks: Where They Come From, What They Are

Happy New Year, everyone!

I hope your holidays went well. Before you put them behind you, take a quick inventory: what helped you get through the holidays this year, and what didn’t? Taking a few minutes to review this will help you do even better next year.

Now that the holidays are behind us, let’s switch gears, and talk about panic attacks.

There’s a lot to say about panic, so – if at the end of this post you have more questions than answers – hang tight. I’ll cover more in the next post. And the one after that.

If you have PTSD, chances are pretty good that you also have panic attacks. Panic attacks and PTSD are caused by the same reflex When it senses a threat, your heart rate speeds up, your muscles tense up, you get a shot of adrenalin and you deal with the threat. And then when the threat’s over, if this reflex is working properly, your adrenal glands stop pumping adrenalin into your bloodstream, and you get to feel calm again.

Like PTSD, panic attacks happen when the “off” switch on your threat-response reflex breaks down. Reflex starts to misfire, basically. The triggers for panic attacks aren’t always obvious; often, panic attacks might seem like they’re happening for no reason at all.

A panic attack is one of the most intensely unpleasant things that can happen to you.

I’m going to describe what a panic attack feels like. If you get a lot of panic attacks and they are easily triggered, take a moment now to remind yourself that you’re not in danger; look around the room, take a few slow, deep breaths.

When you’re having a panic attack, you might feel like you can’t breathe; your heart starts pounding like it wants to jump out of your chest; your chest feels like it’s going to explode; you’re shaking, sweating, tingling, numb, hot or cold; you feel dizzy, light-headed or faint; you feel like you’re choking and like you’re going to throw up. It might feel like it’s not real, and you might be (understandably) scared and thinking you’re going to die or go crazy.

Look – I’d love to write a whole book right now, in this blog post, to explain all the biology of how and why they happen, and how you’re going to beat them. That’s going to take a few more posts on my part, and a lot of practice on your part (and hopefully, some real help, because a blog is not a substitute for actual therapy. And if you’re dealing with panic, then I’d really like you to go get some therapy).

What I need you to know for right now, is that panic attacks are not dangerous. Panic can’t make you go crazy, it can’t make you have a heart attack, and it can’t make you die. It is totally, completely awful to deal with. It feels like an eternity, but it usually lasts somewhere between 10-20 minutes for most people. And then it’s over, and you’re exhausted but in no danger.

That’s important information to keep in mind. Because when you have panic attacks, you end up spending a lot of time dreading the next panic attack. So – work on reminding yourself that panic attacks can’t actually hurt you, even if they feel really awful. That’s the first step to taking back your life.

I’d love to have you share your thoughts, comments, and questions. If you do post a comment, please don’t give specific details of your trauma – these may be triggering to another reader. If you’d like to offer criticism, I’ll take it – I know I’m not perfect, and I’m always willing to learn. If you do offer criticism though, I’d really appreciate it if you could do so constructively (ie., no name-calling, please). Thanks…

You can find me on Twitter and on Facebook.

~ Dr. Dee Rajska, C. Psych.

*Fine print: Please feel free to share the link to this blog wherever you think it might be helpful! Reading this blog is a good start, but it’s no substitute for professional help. It takes a different kind of courage to admit to yourself that you’re struggling. PTSD is not a sign of failure – it’s a sign that you’ve been through a lot, and have tried to stay strong for too long. If you need help – you’re in some pretty great company. Reach out, and give yourself a chance to feel better.

**Really fine print: The content of Coming Back Home is copyrighted; please feel free to share the link, but do not copy and paste content. Unless otherwise noted, all original photography on Coming Back Home is copyrighted. The photo gracing today’s post was taken by M & C Charbonneau, and I’d like to thank them for generously allowing me to use their work. Please do not copy photographs from Coming Back Home without permission.

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7 thoughts on “Panic Attacks: Where They Come From, What They Are

    1. Hi Jo-Anne!

      Panic attacks last 20-30 minutes on average; it is possible but rare for them to last longer than this.

    1. They’re still panic attacks; they’re just longer panic attacks, which is even more exhausting. If you are prone to getting longer-lasting panic attacks, it can be even more important to learn relaxation tools, to help cut them down to a shorter length.

  1. The doctors here keep telling me I’m not having panic attacks or anxiety attacks, yet I’ve been diagnosed with Panic Disorder and Anxiety Disorder.

    1. Jo-Anne,

      My apologies for the delay in getting back to you.

      It’s hard for me to jump in as someone who is not familiar with your history and symptoms to try to make sense of this for you; but, it might be important for your doctors to communicate with each other, and for you to have a chance to ask questions.

      You might start with the doctor who diagnosed the panic disorder – that doctor must have felt you were having panic attacks, or he/she would not have made that diagnosis. If another one of your doctors feels that you aren’t having panic attacks, then it would be important to have them communicate, and arrive at some sort of understanding in terms of what exactly they feel your diagnosis should be.

      Good luck Jo-Anne. I hope you’re able to get a clear diagnosis, an explanation from your doctors of what precisely they believe is happening, and the right treatment.

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