What is a panic attack?

Panic Attack Oakville, Ontario, Shift Cognitive Therapy + Assessment

What causes a panic attack?

In today’s world, it’s not uncommon to find yourself feeling overwhelmed. Intense worries and fears about work, home life, and other stressors can take a toll on your body and mind. However, if you ever find that these fears get so intense at certain times, manifesting in the form of panic so much so that they start to interfere with your daily functioning, you may be living with panic disorder.

Panic attacks can come on completely unexpectedly. In other cases, someone may experience a panic attack in a certain setting and then continue experiencing them whenever they find themselves in that same situation. However, not everyone who experiences feelings of anxiety and panic will go on to develop panic disorder.

There are a few factors that can lead to the development of panic disorder, which include biological, psychological, and social influences that, when coupled with a specific circumstance, can intertwine and lead to these overwhelming instances of panic. Firstly, our biological makeup, passed on from our parents, can play a role in how we react to situations.

Studies have shown that a more anxious temperament, or our individual nature and how we react to situations, can be passed down to us through our genetics. Take a look around. If you find that members of your family also have a tendency to panic in response to stressful situations, then some of your anxiety might be a factor of your genetics.

What is a Panic Attack?

In order to accurately describe panic disorder, we must first understand what a panic attack is. In its simplest form, a panic attack can be described as a sudden swell in feelings of powerful fear or discomfort. Panic attacks are often accompanied by physical sensations which can include sweating, an increased heart rate or pounding heart, feelings of shortness of breath or choking, chest pain, trembling, chills or feeling too hot, nausea, numbness or tingling.

People undergoing a panic attack might also experience feelings of derealization (feeling like their surroundings are no longer real) or depersonalization (feeling like they are separated from their body). The fear of dying is also sometimes present during panic attacks. Only four of the symptoms above are needed to qualify as a panic attack. Typically, symptoms will rise to their peak intensity within a few minutes of occurring and then come back down to normal levels.

Reactions to Panic Attacks

In someone with a typical level of reactivity to stress, the limbic system would not be as susceptible to feelings of panic. However, people who have over-reactive limbic systems have been shown to be more prone to experience panic. The amygdala, two, small, almond-shaped organs located within the limbic system, are there to function like the smoke-detectors of the brain.

Their sole job is to scan the environment and decide, immediately and based on past experience, whether any new circumstances are ‘safe’ or ‘dangerous’. Trauma and other life events can cause the amygdala to become hypersensitive and more likely to sound the alarms even when danger is not present. Trauma can also hinder higher-level structures of the brain, like the cerebral cortex, interfering in their ability to calm the limbic system and return the body to a state of rest.

It is also important to note that certain lifestyle factors, such as smoking cigarettes, especially throughout the formative teenage years, can lead to this tendency of our brain to panic. Nicotine use in adolescence has been associated with higher levels of emotional reactivity and the development of panic disorder in adulthood. Its addictiveness and the way in which it increases bodily symptoms and respiratory system issues can increase our biological vulnerability to developing panic disorder.

Social Influences that Cause Panic Attacks

The more that false alarms are associated with our learned, true alarms, the more likely it is for sufferers of panic disorder to come to believe that any physical symptoms are dangerous and should be avoided. Many people can become hyper-aware of how they are feeling in terms of their physical symptoms and may try to avoid situations that can trigger them entirely.

It is important to keep in mind that panic is usually an evolutionarily beneficial response to danger. Meaning that when we perceive a threat in our environment, it’s good for our body to register it and become fearful of the situation. This fear triggers an alarm in our brains, telling us to defend ourselves or get going. More specifically, our autonomic nervous system, responsible for controlling our breathing and heart rate outside of our conscious awareness, sends messages to our bodies to get ready for fighting or fleeing.

When this response occurs in proportion with a perceived threat, it is completely beneficial. However, in the case of a panic attack, people can experience these strong feelings of fear and anxiety over a threat or just the thought of a threat that may not actually be detrimental to their survival. Our evolutionary stress response can start to react to everyday stress in a way that can end up making us feel scared and too overwhelmed to function.

How to Develop Skills to Cope with a Panic Attack

The second step CBT emphasizes involves providing and implementing coping skills that will help those with panic disorder reduce their stress and anxiety levels and help them physically get through a panic attack.

People are often not able to control when they have a panic attack, but with the help of CBT, they can control how they get through it. CBT can help individuals become more comfortable with the stimuli that usually bring about panic through controlled exposure, leaving them feeling stronger and more capable of coping with the feelings of fear and acute anxiety.

Relaxation Techniques for Panic Attacks

CBT can also provide people who have panic disorder with skills to help them relax their body and calm the physical symptoms that usually arise during episodes of panic. Learning how to engage in calm breathing and meditative exercises can greatly reduce heart rate and built-up tension in the body, lowering the discomfort caused by panic attacks without flat-out avoidance. Decades of clinical research has shown that CBT is an effective treatment option for treating panic disorder.

Learn more about Panic disorders

Shift Cognitive Therapy + Assessment

Shift Cognitive Therapy + Assessment is a team of psychologists and counsellers in Oakville, ON. We specialize in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy(CBT) and Emotion-Focused Therapy (EFT) for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), depression and anxiety for children, teens and adults.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy & Emotion-Focused Therapy

The goal of cognitive behaviour therapy is to help individuals become aware of the thoughts and patterns of behaviour that keep them feeling stuck. Its focus is on the ‘here-and-now’ to help relieve current symptoms and address current problems.

Emotion-Focused Therapy is an approach to couples and family issues that focuses on identifying and correcting repetitive and dysfunctional patterns that leave people feeling alone and unsupported. EFT helps members of a couple or family to remain engaged with each other in order to better communicate what each really needs from the other.

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