Panic attacks are often difficult to understand — even to those that suffer from them regularly.
Imagine that you’re walking down the street, when out of the corner of your eye you spot a semi-truck barreling toward you at an astronomical speed. Your instincts kick in and your stress level goes into overdrive. You have to move as fast as you can to get out of the way. For the next few moments, you feel like your life is hanging in the balance.
Now imagine dealing with that feeling when you’re casually shopping at the grocery store.
These intense episodes are an all-too-familiar reality for those who struggle with panic attacks and panic disorder — a mental health issue that many people still don’t understand, says Ricks Warren, Ph.D., a psychologist and clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan. Below Warren highlights nine common misconceptions people believe about panic — even the ones that suffer from it.
Panic attacks are just an overreaction to stress.
Panic attacks are more than just being “too worried” or “high strung.” They’re debilitating episodes that can last anywhere from a few moments to 10 minutes, Warren says. The body’s fight-or-flight response is triggered. As a result, sufferers can feel like they’re in danger and they work to avoid the source of the problem at all costs.
“They often feel shame about the fact that they have panic attacks and they feel the need to do all this avoidance,” he tells The Huffington Post. “It’s a major, major problem.”
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You can pass out from a panic attack.
Fainting is caused by a dip in blood pressure and during these episodes your BP actually rises, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. While it may feel like you’re going to lose all control, it doesn’t necessarily happen, Warren says.
However, there are other very real physical symptoms of panic attacks. Due to the increase in blood pressure it can also feel like you’re having a heart attack (even though you’re not). You may experience chest pain, dizziness or difficulty breathing.
Panic attacks and anxiety are the same thing.
While both are equally difficult to deal with, Warren stresses distinguishing just the episodes (i.e. one or two panic attacks) from disorders. Anxiety is more of an umbrella term, which can encompass panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and more.
“Anxiety is more worrying about something bad that could happen in the future, whether it’s in the next five minutes or later in the week,” he explained. “When [panic] starts affecting their life, when they start worrying about the next panic attack, when they start avoiding situations to prevent them, that’s what we would call panic disorder.”
You’re stuck with the disorder for the rest of your life.
“It’s a common misconception that [being diagnosed with panic disorder] means that you’ll be on medication for the rest of your life,” Warren said. There’s a huge stigma when it comes to mental health, which can make sufferers prolong getting help. However, the sooner you do so, the sooner you can control your panic.
Research shows that medications are effective, but so is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy without medications or a combination of both, Warren added. “There’s also a myth that there isn’t any hope or any effective treatment, which isn’t true,” he said. Your doctor can help you determine which method works best for you.
It’s hard to relate to someone who has panic attacks.
Remember that truck scenario from before? Chances are you can recall a time you’ve been in a similar situation where you needed to spring into action. Those are versions of panic attacks, Warren says. It’s just not as easy for some people to write them off.
Warren suggests practicing compassion the next time a loved one goes through the experience. “Listen and let the person tell you about what it is they’re experiencing,” he said. “Empathize. Think of a time in your own life when you’ve been terrified of something. It might have been external, but you still remember how terrifying that is.”
Panic is a gateway to a more serious mental illness.
Many people believe that being diagnosed with panic disorder or having a panic attack means they’re going to develop another serious mental illness, such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. “Panic disorder is something that’s kind of in its own right,” he said. If you’re still worried, bring up your concerns with a mental health professional, he added.
Deep breaths will calm a panic attack.
“We hear all the time that if you’re really anxious to take a deep breath — but with people who have panic attacks … you put yourself in a hyperventilation state,” Warren said. By inhaling deeply, you’re releasing extra carbon dioxide. This causes an increase symptoms like dizziness and and numbness, which can make you feel like you’re suffocating and lead to more rapid, deep breaths. Focus on more shallow inhalations and exhalations instead.
Loved ones can’t help when someone is having a panic attack.
Panic attacks are a personal experience, which means each person who sufferers from one reacts differently than another. Some people may want you to talk them through it, others may want you to distract them, Warren explained. “The point is to try to respond non-judgmentally and get it from their point of view,” he said.
Looking for more ways to help? Check out these supportive phrases (and what phrases you should avoid).
You should avoid what causes the episodes.
It may be the first instinct to avoid whatever is causing you pain, but Warren advises to do quite the opposite. “Once you start avoiding places because you think you might have a panic attack, you start restricting your life,” he explained.
Engaging in “safety behaviors,” i.e. not going to places that will trigger the attack or even avoiding exciting movies that cause a rush of adrenaline, the sufferer may not learn that there’s nothing to fear in the first place, Warren says. The best way to manage them is to employ the CBT techniques or other methods that have been discussed with a professional.