Do you get very worried about things, and then feel overwhelmed, like you are having a heart attack? Or do you suddenly, out of the blue, have a beating heart and feel sick, or like you are going crazy or will die?

Are these things panic attacks or not?

What is a panic attack?

A panic attack is actually more the second of the above examples. It is when we experience out-of-the-blue feelings of terror alongside strong physical symptoms.

The DSM-V, America’s main diagnostic manual, sees there being two types of panic attacks, ‘expected’ vs ‘unexpected’. So either caused by a single trigger, like seeing a spider or not being able to find the exit of a building, or with no obvious cause.

The World Health Organisation's ICD-10 manual, on the other hand, only recognises panic attacks that have no known trigger. It states, "The essential feature is recurrent attacks... which are not restricted to any particular situation or set of circumstances and are therefore unpredictable".

Panic vs anxiety

If you are worried about all sorts of things, and it becomes stronger and stronger? Until suddenly your heart is racing and your muscles are tight? And you almost feel you’ll have a heart attack? Then you are experiencing strong anxiety, or what many people call an ‘anxiety attack’.

This said, anxiety and panic are closely related. The lines can be very blurred. For example, people generally experience anxiety with a panic attack. And panic disorder (see below) comes under the umbrella of 'anxiety disorders' in diagnostic manuals.

Symptoms of a panic attack

Panic attacks share many symptoms with anxiety, such as:

  • sweatiness
  • a pounding heart, palpitations, chest pain
  • numbness, tingling
  • lightheaded and dizziness
  • muscle tensing or trembling
  • stomach cramps or feeling sick
  • a feeling of ‘unreality’ or dissociation
  • a fear you are going to die.

Other symptoms of panic attacks which are more severe than anxiety are:

  • hyperventilating
  • choking, not feeling able to breathe
  • being sure something terrible is about to happen
  • feeling you are losing your mind.

What is panic disorder?

Some people experience a one off panic attack, or a few here and there, and that is it.

Others have panic attacks often, and they can be very intense, lasting for several minutes or more -- even up to an hour in some cases. This episodic sort of panic attack means you have ‘panic disorder’.

Again, panic and anxiety are connected. Panic disorder is considered an anxiety disorder.

If you have panic disorder, you’ll also have anxiety over the attacks themselves, and this fear of having an attack will see you make life changes, such as avoiding certain things.

Other conditions you can mistake for panic disorder

If you are using drugs or medications that are causing you paranoia and panic, this is not considered to be panic disorder.

Other conditions that you might be misdiagnosing as panic disorder are:

I am still not sure if it’s panic or not

Don’t get too hung up on terminology. Mental health terms aren’t describing illnesses we can see under a microscope. They are simply terms created by medical health professionals to more easily describe groups of people with the same symptoms.

What matters that if you have symptoms that are affecting your day to day life, you seek support.

What kind of therapy can help me with panic attacks?

Panic attacks not only make life difficult, they can affect your self-esteem. Some people find that they feel ashamed of their panic, and even stop going out unless they have to. The loneliness can lead to depression.

When a mental health condition is limiting your potential and negatively affecting your life like this, it’s time to seek support.

Panic attacks and panic disorder respond well to cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Clinical hypnotherapy might also help you.

Ready to stop letting panic attacks control your life? Find a therapist you like at a price you can afford and get the help you deserve to move forward.

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