Myths and truths about panic attacks

A panic attack is a peculiar mental condition, accompanied by an obsessive agonizing feeling of inexplicable anxiety and fear, the nature of which is often misunderstood. Some people mistakenly call panic attacks the usual feeling of nervousness, although these are two completely different conditions. There is also a misconception that PA only affects overly sensitive and weak people. And some even confuse panic attacks with agoraphobia (fear of open spaces and crowded places).

If you or someone close to you suffers from panic attacks, this information will help you figure out what is true about PA and what is fiction.

What is a panic attack

A panic attack causes an intolerable physical condition, so the person enters a vicious cycle of waiting for an attack - this is how a panic disorder develops. PA usually occurs without any warning signs, and sometimes without a specific trigger. The attack can be either single or repeated over a relatively short period.

Signs PAs appear suddenly and usually reach their peak within 10 minutes. Very rarely, an attack can last more than an hour, in most cases it ends within 20-30 minutes. An attack can occur anywhere and anytime: on the street, in a store, in a car, even when a person is quietly sitting at home on the couch and watching TV.

A panic attack usually begins with feelings of fear and anxiety. During this time, a person may experience 4 of the following symptoms:

  • rapid heartbeat;
  • suffocation ;
  • chest pain ;
  • shivering;
  • uneven breathing;
  • depersonalization and derealization;
  • nausea and abdominal pain;
  • fear of losing control;
  • excessive sweating;
  • feeling nervous;
  • fear of death.

Although the exact causes of panic attacks are still unknown to researchers, but, as the observations of specialists show, the disease tends to manifest itself as a hereditary disorder. Also, scientists have found a connection between seizures and global changes in a person’s life (wedding, childbirth, admission to a university, change of place of study / work, death of a loved one, an incurable disease or a serious injury).

After the first attack of PA, it is very important to be examined and to exclude possible other diseases. A panic attack can sometimes be caused by mitral valve prolapse (when one of the heart valves doesn't close properly), hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid gland), or hypoglycemia (a severe drop in blood sugar). In addition, PA attacks can occur after the use of stimulants, including amphetamines, cocaine, and even drugs containing high doses of caffeine. In some people, PA may result from drug withdrawal.

The most common myths about the disease

Despite the fact that panic attacks are a fairly common and well-studied disease, nevertheless, there are many myths and false assumptions about this disorder.

Myth: Panic attacks are a reaction to stress and anxiety

People under severe stress can sometimes say: “Because of this fear (experience/nervous shock) I almost had (had) a panic attack!”. Such statements only indicate that the person does not really know or understand how a true PA attack occurs.

Predictable anxiety or nervousness caused by a difficult life situation or stressor is not the same as a panic attack. If a person can predict a possible worsening of the psycho-emotional state, then this is not an attack of PA. Real attacks happen completely unexpectedly, with no warning signs. People suffering from PA may eventually learn to control their condition during an attack, but they can never predict and prevent an attack.

Myth: Panic attacks are observed only in sick people

It should be noted that panic attacks can be a manifestation of any mental disorder: generalized anxiety disorder, specific phobias, obsessive -compulsive disorder, agoraphobia, social anxiety disorder, depression, bipolar disorder. However, with such pathologies, there are other specific symptoms. Based on the experience of modern psychotherapy and psychiatry, panic attacks often occur in people who are practically healthy - businessmen, housewives, athletes, etc. They arise against the background of emotional and physical overstrain.

Myth: Panic attacks cannot occur during sleep

Most often, panic attacks occur when a person is awake. However, no matter how strange it may sound, an attack of PA can occur even during sleep. Symptoms of nocturnal attacks can be similar in many ways to daytime attacks. As a rule, a person wakes up due to severe shortness of breath or from the knowledge that he is suffocating. During night attacks, a person usually feels more intense fear, as well as a strange feeling that he is watching himself from the side. It can be difficult for the patient to understand where he is, and after an attack he cannot sleep for a long time. If nighttime PAs are repeated quite often, a person develops a persistent sleep disorder.

Myth: Panic attacks can be prevented.

Some people think that PA can be prevented by avoiding the trigger. For example, a person may believe that the reason for his panic is the fear of flying, so he should avoid airplanes. Others, on the contrary, believe that the most effective way to overcome PA is to face your fear face to face. But it is not so. This kind of therapy can help cure a phobia, but does not guarantee a cure for PA attacks. After all, as already mentioned, it is impossible to determine the triggers that cause the attack. Just like you can’t predict when the next attack will happen.


Myth: A PANIC ATTACK can make you lose your mind. with your body and mind. At such a moment, the patient begins to worry that such attacks are the “first bell” and soon he may completely lose his mind. People who observe a person with PA, but do not understand the true nature of the disorder, also often express the opinion that if this continues, the patient may develop schizophrenia, hallucinations or delusional psychosis.

The reality is that although PA attacks are mostly caused by a specific mental health condition, they are by no means a symptom or a harbinger of insanity. Research confirms that even the most severe attack cannot cause a person to completely lose touch with reality.

Myth: You can die from a panic attack

An attack of PA is accompanied by not the most pleasant symptoms. Chest pain, heart palpitations, heavy sweating, shortness of breath, headache, nausea and dizziness are usually perceived by a person as something extremely dangerous, requiring emergency medical attention. These symptoms are especially frightening for those experiencing PA for the first time. However, the symptoms of PA are not life-threatening. As scientific observations show, the most dangerous thing that can happen to a person during an PA is loss of consciousness, and this happens quite infrequently.

Nevertheless, one must be aware that the typical signs of PA can also occur in other diseases, in particular heart disease. Therefore, it would be useful to play it safe and exclude cardiological problems.

Myth: Nothing can be done to relieve a panic attack

Are panic attacks treated? This is one of the most common questions people have with this diagnosis. The truth is that there is no reliable cure for PA these days. Nevertheless, you can quite effectively manage your condition during an attack. There are several treatment options for this.

The most popular treatments for PA are:

  • psychotherapy;
  • taking medications from the group of antidepressants;
  • taking benzodiazepines.

As an adjuvant treatment often used:

  • deep breathing practice;
  • desensitization (a special technique for relieving tension, anxiety, fear);
  • progressive muscle relaxation (complex of relaxation exercises).

Studies have shown that regular exercise can help increase stress tolerance, relieve stress caused by anxiety, and thereby reduce the frequency of panic attacks. By the way, it should be said separately about the nutrition of people with PA. It turned out that certain foods can contribute to more frequent seizures. These are foods high in caffeine and monosodium glutamate. Also, in order to avoid frequent attacks, one should not be overly addicted to alcoholic beverages. All of these foods can increase anxiety and make a person more prone to panic attacks.

To cope with your fear and learn how to manage your PA, it is best to seek professional help. Your doctor may first suggest a mental health screening to understand what is causing the seizures. Then the specialist will select a treatment program, which, as a rule, consists of medication and psychotherapy. Treatment will not help to completely eliminate PA from life, but will teach you to understand and control your condition during an attack.

Myth: People with PA must take medication for the rest of their lives.

Proper medication can relieve anxiety, reduce the number of attacks and their severity. Despite the benefits of this treatment, many people worry that once they take a pill, they will have to do so for the rest of their lives. In fact, medications can be prescribed to a patient in a course for a limited time, while the patient only learns to understand and manage his condition.

Myth: PA occurs in people with difficult childhoods

It is widely believed that the cause of PA in adults should be sought in their childhood. According to this theory, children from dysfunctional families, as well as those who had a difficult childhood, are more prone to panic attacks in adulthood than others. However, when it comes to scientific facts supporting this theory, there is none. Let's say more, at present, specialists do not know the exact cause of this disorder.

In addition to the theory of difficult childhood, there are other versions. For example, that PA is, on the contrary, the result of excessive guardianship and protection of the child from the real world. There is also a theory that PA can appear in people who have suffered severe trauma at a young age. At the same time, other scientists suggest that panic attacks are prone to people in whose brain the work of transmitters responsible for the state of anxiety is disrupted. No less popular among researchers is the genetic theory, according to which PA is a hereditary disease.

That is, it cannot be unequivocally stated that PA is the consequences of events that occurred in childhood. Today, most experts still believe that PA is actually caused by a combination of different factors, including genetic, biochemical, environmental and social.

Myth: Panic attacks are for the weak and unable to control their own emotions

The truth is that PA can happen to anyone, regardless of character. Research shows that neither willpower, nor firmness of character, nor the ability to manage your fears are a guarantee of complete protection against PA.

What to say and not to say to a person with PA

It can be difficult for healthy people to understand how a person suffering from panic attacks feels. But it is very important to know what you can say to a person during a PA, and what not, so as not to worsen his well-being. Below we will consider phrases that should never be said to those who have had an attack.

"It's all in your head!"

As we have said, there are many myths about panic attacks that create false stereotypes about the disease. One of the common misconceptions says that any manifestation of panic is just the result of the imagination. In fact, PA is a realistically diagnosable condition that includes both mental and emotional as well as physical symptoms.

The phrase that the cause of PA is in the head and thoughts of a person sounds like an accusation to him that he himself is guilty of his poor health. Such words can cause increased stress in the patient, lower self-esteem and make him withdrawn. Instead of this phrase, it is better to say: “I am here with you!”. So the person will understand that he is not alone and you are ready to help him if necessary. This phrase makes the patient feel more secure, gives him confidence that he will cope with the attack.

"Pull yourself together and calm down!"

Despite the popularity of these words, experts say that this is one of the most insensitive phrases that can be said to a person with PA. You can be sure that if he could calm down, he would definitely do it. Managing fear, anxiety, or a panic attack is not as easy as it might seem from the outside. Hearing such a phrase, a person perceives it as a message that he should be ashamed of his behavior. Instead, it's better to ask, "How can I help you?" So the patient will understand that you are ready to provide him with the necessary support and do not condemn him. Remember, if a loved one has recently started having PA, it may take time for them to learn to understand themselves and manage their condition.

"You must confront your fears!"

The opinion that a face-to-face confrontation with one's greatest fear will help a person cope with PA is quite common. But it is often wrong. Forcing the sufferer of panic attacks to face their main fear will not always help to overcome it. Contrary to misconception, such a situation, on the contrary, may result in worsening of the patient's condition. Many people with PA also develop agoraphobia (fear of crowded places). If a friend tries to avoid such places, you should not forcefully pull him to a crowded stadium or shopping center during sales. Instead, it’s better to tell him, “You can handle this. Continue at your own pace." Let a person gradually get used to crowded places and slowly move towards his goal - victory over fears. So he has more chances to overcome his phobia.

"You're overreacting!"

Just imagine for a moment what it is like to suddenly experience a feeling of all-consuming anxiety, when the heart seems to jump out of the chest, the body trembles and sweats, it becomes difficult to breathe, nausea appears, pain in the chest. All this happens to a person during a typical attack of PA. And if, against the background of such a state of health, a person hears the phrase, they say, he overreacts to what is happening, then he will perceive it as an accusation that he imitates poor health. Instead, it is better to support the patient with the words: “Everything is fine, now everything will pass!”. This will give him confidence in himself.

"You ruined everything again!"

Panic attacks can occur at any time, often at very inopportune times. Sometimes a loved one's PA can affect plans: a seizure may require canceling a meeting, trip, or celebration. But even if this happens, the patient cannot be categorically blamed for this. He should not be made to feel guilty for his illness. Instead of insults (intentional or not), it is more correct to support him, not to focus on the fact that something did not go according to plan. "Don't worry, nothing bad happened!" is the best thing to say to a person in such a situation.

Studies show that no one is immune from a panic attack. Therefore, it is important to understand what the disorder is, how to recognize it, and what to do during an attack. With this information, it becomes easier to help yourself or a loved one suffering from PA.