The Myths and Facts behind Panic Attack Treatment
Updated: Nov 17
Sometimes the most challenging part is feeling understood through the stigma and misconceptions of panic attacks.
Panic attacks are abrupt and intense surges of anxiety or fear. They can be overwhelming and often have manifest in physical and emotional responses. While having a panic attack, you may tremble, sweat excessively, or feel difficulty in breathing. In extreme cases, people may experience chest pains and even feelings of detachment from reality during a panic attack, which is why it is often misunderstood as a heart attack or other physical heart conditions.
Panic attacks may occur for several reasons, such as consuming certain medications, experiencing stress (social, financial, emotional) that is causing anxiety, having a condition involving psychosis, or certain medical conditions. Sometimes, they happen for no apparent reason.
There are many misconceptions about what a panic attack is and how it feels like. It is important to distinguish facts from fiction in order to better understand and help yourself through one. Here are the 6 most commonly believed myths about panic attacks and the truths behind them.
Myth #1 – All panic attacks have the same symptoms
Fact – Panic attacks can feel different for every person experiencing them and largely depends on one's personal experience.
The most common symptoms include:
shortness of breath
a racing heart
feeling a loss of control or safety
Myth #2 – Panic attacks and anxiety are the same things
Fact – Panic attacks may occur with or without a trigger, but anxiety is caused by certain perceived threats or beliefs.
Anxiety is the feeling of uneasiness or nervousness caused by certain threats or the belief that you cannot cope with. With proper treatment (like psychotherapy and/or medication), anxiety can be lowered in intensity and frequency. However, without proper interventions and left untreated, anxiety can get worse over time and therefore manifest into panic attacks.
Panic attacks can be extremely distressing as symptoms related to panic attacks can be more severe and may feel like an actual heart attack. In addition, these symptoms can influence behaviour, such as avoiding places or situations that are perceived as possible triggers, further increasing and intensifying feelings of anxiety, which in turn increase the frequency and intensity of future panic attacks.
Myth #3 – Panic attacks are often an overreaction and intentionally dramatic
Fact – Contrary to most popular belief, panic attacks aren't something people can control. Instead, it can be triggered by mental illness, stressful events, or unspecified stimuli and changes in the environment.
Rather than seeking attention, people who experience panic attacks in a public place or in front of others feel uncomfortable and often embarrassed. Someone experiencing such an attack often wants to leave the place and get home as soon as possible. If you know someone experiencing panic attacks, avoid saying “you’re overreacting," or "calm down it's nothing,". These dismissals make it even harder for the person to come out of a panic attack. Instead, offering words of comfort and understanding like “I can see that was really difficult for you” or “is there anything I can do to help you feel more comfortable?” can be more helpful to the person.
Myth #4 – Deep breathing will stop the attack immediately
Fact – While deep breathing can help someone with the attack, it cannot stop the attack immediately.
The moment a panic attack strikes, it may come with a wave of mixed emotions such as rage, anger, fear, shame, and sadness. These emotions can make a person feel out of control. Telling the person to take deep breaths might help but again, it differs from person to person.
If you are finding yourself or a loved one experiencing extreme anxiety or a panic attack, try this 54321 technique instead:
1. Look around and name five things that you can see around you.
ex. a lamp, a car, a rock on the ground
Think about how that thing looks to you or what is it that you like or don't like about it.
2. Focus on four things that you can feel.
ex. how the wind is blowing onto your face, how the sun feels on your skin.
It can be helpful to say these things out loud, such as ‘I can feel the softness of my sweater on my arm"
3. Name three things that you can hear around you.
ex. The sound of traffic, the sound of people walking past you, the sounds of birds in the distance.
4. Identify two things that you can smell around you right now.
ex. The smell of grass, the smell of perfume wafting around you
If you can't smell anything around you, then it can be helpful to name two or three smells that you like such as fresh laundry or a favourite dish.
5. Find one thing that you can taste.
If you can't taste anything, then instead you can choose to name a taste that you like.
Myth #5 – Individuals experiencing panic attacks will be medicated for the rest of their lives
Fact – Medications can be used for panic attack treatment, but not everyone requires medicine.
Every person is different and unique in how they might find relief from anxiety and panic attacks. An important first step when seeking help for panic attacks is to talk to you team of health professionals. Often times family doctors will offer multiple forms of possible treatments and while medication is one of those possible tools to utilize, talk therapy can also be a very vital treatment in reducing panic attacks.
Talking to a therapist about what is going on, getting support in tracing the steps that led to the panic attack, and coming up with concrete plans and strategies to not just cope but to overcome those moments of panic are all goals that you and your therapist can collaborate on. Some people are able to resolve their panic attacks through talk therapy only, some through medication only, and some through a combination of the two. Everyone’s path is unique and so seeking out help and consultation will be the first important step towards managing these experiences.
Myth #6 – People experiencing panic attacks are "crazy," "weak," or "mentally unstable."
Fact – Anyone can have a panic attack, even when you don’t have a history of anxiety.
Panic attacks can happen truly to anyone! They can be a one-time event, they can be reoccurring, or they can happen sporadically. Just because you might not experience anxiety or panic attacks does not mean it will never happen to you, and just because you experience anxiety or panic attacks does not mean you have to experience them forever.
Panic attack are a treatable disorder, and people do not have them because of any personal flaws. The more open we talk to loved ones about our own struggles, the more you might start to realize you are not alone in your experiences.
Panic attacks can feel scary and may hit you suddenly. You may ease the symptoms by practicing mindfulness, consulting a therapist, engaging in physical activities, and avoiding caffeine and alcohol. However, each person experiences and reacts differently to panic attacks and there is often many different options and solutions you can utilize in order to seek relief from them. Life can be extremely difficult and stressful, our anxieties and panic attacks often are a result of our mental clarity being overwhelmed, clouded, and stuck. Don’t hesitate to reach out for help, we all deserve help and support when we feel stuck.
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