Counselor talking to a student

Panic Attacks

Counseling Center

A panic attack is an intense physical and mental chain reaction. It can begin with a simple bodily sensation or a thought about something threatening. Within seconds, a chain reaction is underway, involving fearful thoughts, escalating physical reactions, and feelings of terror and desperation. In most cases, a panic attack will start with a variety of symptoms and peak within 10 to 15 minutes before gradually tapering off.

Here are some of the main symptoms and sensations that people experience during panic attacks:

  1. Sweating/Hot & Cold Flashes:When adrenaline is released by your body during a stressful event, a signal is sent by your sweat glands to create sweat, causing your skin to be slippery to any predator trying to grab you. When the perceived danger has ended, your body perceives the need to return to normal temperature, thereby causing you to feel chills.

  2. Rapid, Pounding Heart Rate:When you are threatened, your heart rate speeds up and intensifies to increase the oxygen flow to your organs.

  3. Numb/Tingling Extremities:While your heart is racing to increase oxygen flow, your brain also sends signals to cut blood flow to your hands and feet as they are the areas most likely to take the brunt of an “attack.” The decreased blood flow to those areas causes numbness and/or tingling sensations.

  4. Tightness of Chest/ Hyperventilation/ Breathlessness/Choking/Dry Mouth: In order to get more oxygen into your system, you will breathe more rapidly while experiencing a panic attack. The strain on the lungs causes tightness or pain in the chest, and a choking sensation often accompanies the feeling of tightness.

  5. Dizziness:The increase of oxygen in your system on top of the decreased flow of blood to extremities (that includes your head) can cause dizziness. It is highly unlikely that you will pass out during a panic attack, but the fear of the dizziness actually increases the panic sensations.

  6. Vision changes:When you are in a fearful or aroused state, your pupils widen to allow as much light as possible in to see any hidden enemies. Due to the widened pupils, it appears as if your vision has altered. This change can cause the increased light to create spots in your vision and blurred vision.

  7. Muscle Aches/Fatigue/ Tremors:Your body is on high alert and is tense and ready for anything. Calming down from the panic attack takes time. Your muscles start to tremor as they release tension and may ache afterwards. Exhaustion will follow since, to your body, you just went through the equivalent of a major workout.

In addition to the previous symptoms, a panic attack is marked by the following conditions:

  • It occurs suddenly, without any warning and without any way to stop it.
  • The level of fear is way out of proportion to the actual situation; often, in fact, it's completely unrelated.
  • It passes in a few minutes; the body cannot sustain the 'fight or flight' response for longer than that. However, repeated attacks can continue to recur for hours.

All too often, patients with panic disorder experience such extreme distress that they present repeatedly to emergency departments or other health care professionals. With each panic attack, they may fear they are dying from a heart attack or suffering from things such as respiratory problems and neurological disorders.

Four Steps to Help You Cope with Panic Attacks

Step 1: R-e-l-a-x..
One step that helps many people get a handle on their panic attacks is to learn and practice relaxation techniques. Examples of relaxation techniques are: changing your breathing patterns, using imagery meditation, and progressive muscle relaxation. For more information and brochures on these techniques, come by the USCA Counseling Center.

Step 2: Change Habits
Sometimes it helps to make some changes in your daily routine, like adding exercise and reducing or eliminating stimulants like caffeine, nicotine and sugar. Exercise helps to burn off excess tension that might otherwise come out as anxiety or panic. Eliminating stimulants like caffeine helps prevent your cup from "running over" with anxiety.

Step 3: Discover the Power of Positive Thinking
Another way of tackling panic attacks is to look at the way you talk to yourself, especially during times of stress and pressure. Panic attacks often begin or escalate when you tell yourself scary things, like "I feel light-headed . . . I'm about to faint!" or "I'm trapped in this traffic jam and something terrible is going to happen!" or "If I go outside, I'll freak out."

To combat this, try to focus on calming, positive thoughts such as, "I'm learning to deal with panicky feelings and I know that it IS possible to overcome panic," or "This will pass quickly, and I can help myself by concentrating on my breathing and imagining a relaxing place," or "These feelings are uncomfortable, but they won't last forever."

Step 4: See a counselor
This is the most important part. Panic attacks are not just in your head; they are real and can be very frightening. The USCA Counseling Center has counselors who can help you learn what triggers your attacks. Panic attacks are frightening, but you can learn how to cope with them. 

According to the National Institute of Mental Health about 1.7% of the adult U.S. population ages 18 to 54—approximately 2.4 million Americans—has panic disorder in a given year.

You are NOT alone...
If you have experienced panic attacks, you are not alone. Panic attacks are actually very common. There are probably many more people who are affected but never seek help or never properly label their problems as panic attacks. Don’t be one of those people! Help is available at the USCA Counseling Center.