Question: I think I might have had a panic attack recently. Can you describe what one actually looks and feels like, and tell me what I can do if it happens again?
Answer: First, the good news: Even though you may feel as if you are dying, a panic attack won’t kill you. A panic attack occurs when the anxiety response to a situation is disproportionate to the actual triggering event. This can be caused by a history of trauma, such as the case of someone suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder. As those who have suffered panic attacks know all too well, it is frightening.
A true panic attack has some very specific identifiers. Physical symptoms include pounding heart, sweating, trembling, chest pain, dizziness, feelings of choking, and nausea. Psychological symptoms of a panic attack include fear of losing control or going crazy, fear of dying, feeling detached from reality, or feeling detached from oneself. During a panic attack you may feel as if your body has taken over and this physical rebellion cannot be controlled by rational thought.
Anxiety is one of the most common reasons people come to a counselor. Your therapist will help you identify triggers and reduce distorted thinking. They will also help you with breathing exercises and relaxation techniques. Unfortunately (as you may have noticed) anxiety is often chronic. It is helpful to accept anxiety as something you can manage with God’s help, rather than something that has a 100% cure rate. Nothing is more anxiety provoking than expecting to achieve absolute perfection.
I would suggest you see your primary care physician first to rule out any medical causes for your heightened anxiety. You should also discuss the benefits of seeing a licensed professional counselor if you are indeed suffering from panic attacks.
And what about the spiritual component? Prayer is healing and calming; having God as someone to hand our anxiety to is key to survival in our chaotic world. Having a trusted friend you can talk to, someone who encourages you with grace, will also be enormously beneficial.
Mark McCormick is director of clinic operations for Illinois Baptist Children’s Home and Family Services.