It comes on suddenly and without warning. Your heart races, you feel like you can’t breathe, you have chest pain and terror practically paralyzes you. It’s called a panic attack and — believe it or not — it’s not dangerous, even if it makes you feel like you’re going to die.
“Panic attacks are a very common problem in the emergency room,” says Dana Derissi, a physician assistant (PA) at the Sharp Grossmont Hospital Emergency Department. “They are spontaneous episodes of severe fear that start unexpectedly and can last anywhere from minutes to hours.”
According to Derissi, most people who come to the emergency room during a panic attack complain of chest pain or say their heart is beating rapidly. In the moment that they are experiencing the attack, the symptoms are very real — and terrifying. “It can be very difficult to determine the difference between chest pain from a panic attack versus a heart attack,” she says.
While panic attacks are not immediately dangerous to your health, many people who experience them begin to worry about future attacks. This can lead to a panic disorder and become debilitating to their lifestyle.
After experiencing a panic attack or recurring attacks, some will avoid people, situations or environments that they feel may result in a panic attack. Other problems, including phobias, depression, substance abuse and even thoughts of suicide, may follow.
“Once it is determined that the symptoms are signs of a panic disorder, rather than a cardiac event, I recommend that patients follow up with their primary care doctor,” says Derissi. “I also encourage them to seek mental health support.”
Derissi says that panic disorders are highly treatable. Treatment may include:
- Talk therapy with a licensed family therapist who can help you understand panic attacks better
- Cognitive behavioral therapy to help identify stressful situations — or triggers — and learn how to avoid or appropriately cope with them
- Exposure to the physical sensations that accompany panic attacks, such as increased heart rate or shaking, in order to learn how to handle them and understand they don't necessarily mean a panic attack is imminent
- Relaxation techniques including breathing exercises, meditation, outdoor activities and yoga
- Panic disorder support groups
- Medication, such as antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications, if needed
“Anxiety and panic attacks are based on things that you think are going to happen in the future — they’re the unknown and things you really can’t control,” Derissi says. “However, with the assistance of therapy, you can understand that you are in control of your thoughts and can overcome or minimize anxiety or panic attacks.”
Talk to your doctor if you are concerned about panic attacks, and seek emergency care if you are experiencing any type of chest pain.