While I have been dealing with anxiety for at least half of my life, I had never had a panic attack. I had heard about them, but never experienced one myself and for that I was grateful. That is until the later part of me living abroad, where my mental health was at an all-time low. I woke up one morning to a tight and sharp pain in my chest, unlike anything I have ever known, along with dizziness and difficulty breathing. My first thought was “I’m having a heart attack”, closely followed with “how do I call an ambulance in a foreign country.” After a call with my mom, who assured me that I was in fact not having a heart attack, I practiced some deep breathing and thought about what might have led me to that situation.  

Panic attacks are a type of fear response, usually characterized by a sudden wave of fear or discomfort or a sense of losing control, even when there is no obvious or imminent danger or reason to why. They often include physical symptoms, such as: racing heartbeat, chest pain, sweating, dizziness, trouble breathing, or shaking, just to name a few. These usually occur fairly quickly, although some people may experience only a few or completely different symptoms altogether. Panic attacks can occur at different times for everyone, as well.

Some common myths about panic attacks are:

  • Only people with panic disorder have panic attacks. Panic disorder, a form of anxiety, is when people experience frequent and unexpected panic attacks. The truth of the matter is, however, that anyone is susceptible to panic attacks, not just those who experience anxiety.
  • People who have panic attacks only want attention. This could not be further from the truth. Panic attacks are real and can be especially scary in the moment, especially when physical symptoms occur alongside.
  • Panic attacks are untreatable. Believe it or not, panic attacks are highly treatable. There are licensed therapists and physiatrists who can help, who will help you with both preventative and in-the-moment coping techniques for when you are having a panic attack.

Now that we have discussed common myths surrounding panic attacks, how can you manage them or even prevent them from happening?

Here are some treatments for panic attacks:

1. Therapy. A therapist will work with you to identify panic attack triggers, as well as coping techniques for when they may occur.

2. Medication. Not for everyone, but can be effective for others. A psychiatrist will work with you to prescribe the appropriate medication and taking this along with a form of therapy can be effective for some people when treating panic attacks and panic disorder.

3. Preventative Measures. As mentioned prior, a therapist will be able to help you identify panic attack triggers, for before they or may occur. In the meantime, you can take certain actions to ensure that you are doing the following; managing stress, exercising, eating healthy, and cutting back on caffeine if you have to. The last one is definitely the most difficult for me, but too much caffeine can make panic attacks, and anxiety in general, worse, so limiting your caffeine intake to even a cup of coffee can do wonders.

Not everyone with anxiety will experience panic attacks, nor will everyone have the same physical symptoms alongside them. Also, most people will probably have different situations that make their panic attacks worse, along with various coping techniques. However, it’s important to know that panic attacks, while they are very real, there is also something that can be done about them.

Staff Blogger: Mollie Clupper

Mollie Clupper works for MHA as a Communications and Support Specialist. Using her own experiences, she wants to help bring awareness and end the stigma surrounding mental health. In her spare time, she enjoys hiking, drinking coffee, and spending time with her fur-niece.