Among the most disconcerting sensations any of us can experience are the feelings of being in danger, trapped or out of control — especially when those feelings strike with no apparent warning.
Thankfully, our bodies have a built-in mechanism to help us handle threatening situations—a physiological reaction is known as the ‘flight-or-fight’ response that has been conditioned over time to help us defend against or escape imminent harm.
The tricky thing about the ‘flight-or-fight’ response is that doesn’t always discern between actual threats and imagined ones. This instinct to ‘flight-or-fight’ in the case of perceived danger or a non-life-threatening situation can, in some extreme case, turn into what’s known as a panic attack.
Symptoms and Triggers of a Panic Attack
Similar to the characteristics of a ‘flight-or-fight’ reaction, panic attacks generally come on quickly and peak within a few seconds, though some can take a few minutes to rev up.
Traits generally include feelings of extreme discomfort like being in danger, trapped or out of control and are often accompanied by marked physical symptoms including heart palpitations, extreme sweating and shortness of breath. In fact, the aforementioned characteristics are what often lead sufferers to believe they’re experiencing something gravely serious, like a heart attack.
Panic attacks can be prompted by a trauma, phobia or stressful life event; they can also be triggered by more subconscious factors that are harder to pinpoint or detect. It’s the somewhat random nature of panic attacks that makes them disorienting and scary for people going through them, especially if they’ve never experienced one before.
The important thing to remember is that while they may feel traumatic at the time, panic attacks are not life-threatening in and of themselves.
What to Do?
If you suffer from panic attacks, don’t despair. It’s a treatable disorder that can be managed with evidence-based techniques. Every case is unique so it’s best to have multiple strategies in your back pocket when a panic attack strikes, for example:
If you suffer from regular panic attacks, consider speaking with a therapy professional about how to manage and prevent future occurrences. An understanding of your mental health can better help you deal with it.
Lindsay Ross, MSW RSW, is a clinical social worker in private practice in Toronto, Ontario.