Panic attacks are often described as a sudden fear of dying, going crazy, with an on slot of somatic experiences (e.g., palpitations, sweating, shaking, chest pains, dizziness, paresthesias, etc.). Panic attacks in isolation have a high prevalence in society and result in significant impairment (Kessler et al., 2006). Though not considered a mental disorder, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), panic attacks can occur with any anxiety disorder or other mental disorder (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). However, as noted by psychologist Ricks Warren of the University of Michigan there are several myths associated with the experience of panic attacks (Holmes, 2015).
Warren indicates many believe that panic attacks are merely an overreaction to stress. The experience of a panic attack far surpasses being too worried or high strung, instead in the course of a panic attack, one’s fight or flight response is triggered. Individuals feel they are in danger and must avoid the trigger. Others believe that individuals can pass out from a panic attack. Actually, as Warren notes, during a panic attack an individual’s blood pressure actually increases, which is counter to the experience of fainting, where there is a dip in blood pressure. Yet, other physical symptoms are experienced and often individuals feel they may be experiencing a heart attack. Some believe panic attacks are the same as anxiety. In fact they are distinct, while anxiety is considered an overarching term concerning worry, panic attacks are considered episodes. Consequently, one can develop worry about having a panic attack, which alludes to the development of panic disorder.
Warren also highlights misconceptions that some believe panic is a lifelong problem and that it is difficult to relate to someone with panic attacks. Actually, pharmacological and therapeutic interventions have shown to be effective, and through empathy and compassion one can offer support to those who suffer from panic attacks. Finally, it is common to hear people advise taking deep breaths to calm panic or even to avoid what causes the panic attacks. First, deep breaths often incite a hyperventilation state, which exacerbates symptoms of dizziness and numbness; instead, taking shallow breaths has shown to be effective. Furthermore, the act of avoidance leads to living a restrictive life. Instead, it is important to understand that engaging in such safety behaviors reinforces fear; yet, working through these fears alongside a professional can demonstrate how one can overcome them as well as subsequent panic attacks.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
Holmes, L. (2015). 9 panic attack myths we need to stop believing. Retrieved from
Kessler, R. C., Chiu, W. T., Jin, R., Ruscio, A. M., Shear, K., & Walters, E. E. (2006).
The epidemiology of panic attacks, panic disorder, and agoraphobia in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Archives of General Psychiatry, 63(4), 415–424. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.63.4.415
Dannie Harris, M.A., M.A., M.A.Ed., Ed.S.,
WKPIC Practicum Trainee