Panic attacks can strike without warning. One minute, you’re fine, and the next minute your heart is racing. You’re dizzy, you can’t breathe, and you begin to shake. It might feel like you’re losing control or going crazy, or you might think you’re having a heart attack. You get the overwhelming urge to flee. Even if there’s no danger present, there is a very real feeling of fear. In moments like these, it can seem impossible to stop the attack.
But there is help for those who suffer with panic attacks. Only about one third of those who experience panic attacks seek treatment, but, for those who do reach out, there are many different avenues through which to find relief. Because panic attacks are caused by both physical and emotional factors, it’s important to speak with a medical professional who can both diagnose and treat your panic attacks.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT, is one of the most effective types of “talk” therapy available, and it can help those who experience panic attacks to control and diminish the incidence of panic attacks. Essentially, CBT teaches you to talk yourself through a panic attack and change your thinking so that you experience them less often. Your thoughts cause your feelings, and feelings of panic are usually born out of certain thinking patterns that ignite fear and a sense of danger—even if there is no real reason to be afraid. Cognitive-behavioral therapy helps you to see these thinking patterns so that panic attacks are less likely.
Another reason that CBT is so effective for panic attacks is the use of exposure therapy. Exposure therapy gives you the chance to confront your fears (the triggers of your panic attacks) in a controlled environment. With the help of your therapist, you put yourself in situations that would normally induce a panic attack, and you walk through the situation repeatedly in order to prove to yourself that, in fact, there’s no real reason to be afraid or feel as though you’re in danger.
For example, if riding in an elevator is so panic-inducing that you avoid elevators, you might ride an elevator several times with your therapist’s guidance. After several safe rides on the elevator, you’ll realize that you’re okay, and the panic attacks will gradually diminish in these situations.
While cognitive-behavioral therapy takes a fairly short period of time to create the needed changes compared to other forms of “talk” therapy, it is often recommended that, at least in the beginning, you use some form of medication to help control your panic attacks. It can take a while to learn how to talk yourself through a panic attack, and, in the meantime, there are several different types of medication available to curb your panic and give you some relief.
Benzodiazepines are the first line of defense when a panic attack strikes. These anti-anxiety medications are fast-acting, quickly relieving the symptoms of a panic attack when it hits. They’re not recommended for long-term use, but in the beginning, they can be very helpful for reducing panic.
For those who’ve been experiencing panic attacks regularly for an extended period of time (a matter of months or years), long-term treatment involves selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). These antidepressants help reduce general anxiety and create a more stable mindset. Tricyclic antidepressants and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) can also be very helpful, but they tend to have more side effects than SSRIs. It is recommended that medication be used in conjunction with therapy for overall treatment of panic disorder. A doctor can help you decide which medication would be best for you.
It is recommended that everyone take steps to live a healthy, balanced lifestyle, but this can be especially important for anyone suffering with panic attacks. Certain lifestyle factors will affect how often you experience intense panic attacks. Some steps that can help you reduce your symptoms of panic disorder include:
Regular exercise. Moderate physical activity can alleviate symptoms of anxiety and panic. Relaxing exercise such as yoga can be especially helpful. Walking is another activity that helps relieve physical stress and restore a sense of calm.
Sleep. Getting too little sleep can make the body more susceptible to the effects of stress. On the other hand, getting regular rest helps to reduce the likelihood of panic attacks.
Meditation. Meditation is an activity that calms the central nervous system, relieving stress and creating a sense of peace and well-being. Meditation can also teach you how to calm the mind in moments of panic.
Avoid stimulants. Studies have shown that caffeine can induce panic attacks. Avoiding large amounts of stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine is recommended for anyone dealing with panic disorder.
Taken together, therapy, medication, and a healthy lifestyle can work to reduce your panic attacks. Panic attacks can cripple your ability to live your life to the fullest, but, if you seek help, there are answers out there. Anyone can find freedom from panic attacks and panic disorder. Talk to a medical professional to find out the best combination for you.