Panic Attacks Defined, Causes, Dual Diagnosis & Treatment Options
What are Panic Attacks?
Panic Disorder consists of recurring panic attacks. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5) defines panic attacks as abrupt surges of intense fear or discomfort that peak within minutes.  People with this disorder live in fear of having a panic attack. You may be having a panic attack when you feel a sudden, overwhelming terror that has no obvious cause. For instance, you may experience physical symptoms, such as a racing heart, difficulty breathing, and sweating.
The American Psychological Association reports that 1 out of every 75 people suffers from panic disorder. Even though the symptoms may feel overwhelming and frightening, they can be managed and improved with treatment. Seeking a proper panic attacks treatment is the most important part of reducing symptoms and improving your quality of life.
What causes a panic attack?
Panic disorder sometimes runs in families, but no one knows for sure why some family members have it while others don’t. According to the National Institute on Mental Health (NIMH) , researchers have found that several parts of the brain, as well as biological processes, play a key role in fear and anxiety. Some researchers think that people with panic disorder misinterpret harmless bodily sensations as threats. By learning more about how the brain and body function in people with panic disorder, scientists may be able to create better treatments. Researchers are also looking for ways in which stress and environmental factors may play a role.
Symptoms of Panic Disorder
Fear of panic attacks or recalling a panic attack can result in another attack. The common symptoms associated with a panic attack include:
- Racing heartbeat or palpitations
- Chest pain or tightness
- Sweating or chills
- Fear that you might die
- Shaking or trembling
- Numbness or tingling in your hands or feet
- Shortness of breath
- Feeling like you are choking
- Dizziness (vertigo)
- Changes in mental state, including a feeling of derealization (feeling of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself)
How long do panic attacks last?
A panic attack is a sudden, intense fear or anxiety that may make you short of breath or dizzy or make your heart pound. You may feel out of control. Some people believe that they are having a heart attack or are about to die. An attack usually lasts from 5 to 20 minutes. But it may last even longer, up to a few hours. You have the most anxiety about 10 minutes after the attack starts. If these attacks happen often, they are called a panic disorder.
Panic attacks can be scary and so bad that they get in the way of your daily activities. However, panic attacks treatment can help most people have fewer symptoms or even stop the attacks. Keep in mind that the experience is different for everyone, and symptoms often vary.
Panic Disorder Diagnosis
If you experience panic attack symptoms, you may seek emergency medical care. However, many who have experienced a panic attack for the first time thought that they were having a heart attack. Initially, the emergency provider will do several tests to see if your symptoms are caused by a heart attack. After that, they may run blood tests to rule out other conditions that can cause similar symptoms, or an electrocardiogram/ECG to check your heart function. If there is no emergency basis for your symptoms, you will be referred to your primary care provider. Then, your primary care provider may perform a mental health examination and ask you about your symptoms.
In conclusion, we cannot say we can possibly prevent panic disorder. However, we can work to reduce the symptoms by avoiding alcohol and stimulants such as caffeine as well as illicit drugs. It is also helpful to be aware if you are experiencing symptoms of anxiety following a distressing life event.
Potential Triggers for Panic Attacks:
- You might be more likely to experience panic attacks if you have family members with a history of panic attacks or panic disorder
- Anxiety is not the same thing as a panic attack, but the two conditions are closely related. Feeling stressed, overwhelmed, or highly anxious can be a risk factor for a future panic attack.
- Brain chemistry changes
- Hormonal changes or changes from medications may impact your brain’s chemistry and can cause panic attacks.
- Life events
- Major changes in your personal or professional life can bring about a great deal of worry or concern. This may lead to panic attacks.
- Underlying conditions
- Conditions and disorders may increase the chances of a panic attack. These may include generalized anxiety disorder, acute stress disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Individuals with specific phobias may also experience panic attacks that wake them up.
- Previous panic attacks
- Fear of having another panic attack may increase anxiety. This could lead to increased stress, sleep loss, and higher risk for more panic attacks.
- Alcohol and panic attacks at night are recurrent, dued to substances abuse in late hours; alcohol or drugs may increase the risks of the attacks.
Panic Attacks Treatment
Treatment for panic disorder focuses on reducing or eliminating the symptoms. This can be achieved through therapy with a qualified professional and in some cases, medication. Therapy typically involves cognitive-behavioral therapy as well. This therapy teaches you to change your thoughts and actions so that you can understand your panic attacks and manage your fear. Medications used to treat panic disorder can include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), a class of antidepressants. Moreover, SSRIs prescribed for panic disorder include fluoxetine, paroxetine, and sertraline. Furthermore, your doctor may prescribe certain medications to help stop future panic attacks. If you do experience a panic attack while on these medications, the symptoms can be less severe.
Panic Attacks Treatment Without Medication
Psychotherapy. A type of psychotherapy called cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is useful. CBT focuses on thinking patterns and behaviors. For example, if you experience a panic attack while driving, what is the worst thing that would really happen? You might have to pull over to the side of the road for you not to crash your car or have a heart attack. Once you learn that nothing truly disastrous is going to happen, the experience of panic becomes less terrifying.
Panic Attack Treatment Medication
Medications are a temporary solution to control some of the symptoms of panic disorder. However, it doesn’t treat or resolve the problem. It can be useful in severe cases. But it should not be the only treatment.
Medication is most effective when combined with other treatments. Such as therapy and lifestyle changes that address the underlying causes of panic disorder.
Examples of Medications used:
Antidepressants. It may take several weeks before it takes effect. Therefore, it has to be taken continuously, and not just during a panic attack.
Benzodiazepines. Anti-anxiety drugs that act within 30 minutes to an hour. However, benzodiazepines are highly addictive and have serious withdrawal symptoms. So they should be used with caution.
A co-occurring panic attack disorder can occur when a secondary disorder or other mental illnesses contribute and become part of the entirety of mental illness requiring treatment. For this more complex Panic Attacks Treatment, an experienced team that can treat the multiple diagnoses can be invaluable in achieving recovery success.
The link between alcohol and panic attacks
Alcohol and panic attacks go hand-in-hand for some individuals, leading to the other. If you are concerned about your panic attacks and feel that you have been using alcohol as a way to self-medicate them, it is crucial to understand the potential impact of this form of self-medication.
There are healthier ways to handle your panic attacks, which won’t leave you at risk of damaging your health and wellbeing in the long run. Remember, having panic attacks is not a weakness; it is a condition that may need professional treatment.
And, if you have been consuming alcohol excessively, which has been leading to panic attacks, it is highly recommended that you reach out for help to deal with your drinking as soon as possible. Getting professional support can be a positive step for you to take to regain control of your life.
Why alcohol is an unhealthy coping mechanism for panic attacks
Panic attack symptoms are terrifying, causing many individuals to experience chest pain, breathlessness, palpitations, vision problems, nausea, diarrhea, and often fear that you are going to die.
While alcohol can lessen or stop the anxious thoughts that frequently lead to panic attacks, drinking will only ever be a temporary fix. It will stop working once the alcohol leaves your body, and if you continually drink to quash your panic attacks, this can lead to long-term damage.
Self-medicating your panic attacks in this way can leave you psychologically dependent on alcohol, as you come to rely on it to keep your anxious thoughts and feelings at bay. You become vulnerable to physical dependency too. You may have already found that you have to drink larger quantities to get rid of your anxieties or are now drinking to stave off withdrawal symptoms.
If you have been drinking alcohol to manage panic attacks, it is time to think about different ways to deal with your emotions, as alcohol is a highly unhealthy and dangerous way of doing so.
Several numbers people have panic attacks regularly. You may want to talk to your doctor about treatments that can help you reduce the attacks and prevent them from happening in the future. These treatments may include:
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) – During sessions, you will work with a therapist to understand the possible causes of your panic attacks. You will also develop strategies to help you ease the symptoms quickly if ever they happen again.
At the We Level Up NJ treatment center, we provide world-class care with round-the-clock medical professionals available to help you cope. All working as a team providing primary SUD treatment along with primary substance abuse and co-occurring secondary Panic Attacks treatment for successful recovery. Make this your opportunity to reclaim your life. Call today to speak with one of our treatment specialists. Our counselors know what you are going through and will answer any of your questions. Your call is private and confidential and there is never any obligation.
 NIMH – https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/panic-disorder-when-fear-overwhelms
 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5) – https://www.psychiatry.org/psychiatrists/practice/dsm