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Mental Space: Panic Attacks

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The human mind is complex and interconnected. Follow Amber Gauss along as she breaks down mental health at Wittenberg and beyond. Graphic by Atticus Dewey/The Wittenberg Torch

Panic attacks are not a fun experience for anyone. A panic attack is more than just being unable to calm your thoughts and breathing. A panic attack can easily be pacing because it’s the only thing keeping you together. It can also involve you being curled up in a ball sobbing uncontrollably and hyperventilating. Either way, it’s not a fun experience.

People who experience panic attacks aren’t crazy or weird. They’re neuro-divergent people who suffer from one or more mental anxiety-related disorders. They might have panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), social anxiety, or even generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). There are many other anxiety-related disorders that cause panic attacks as well. I personally suffer from two of these and have panic attacks.

For me, panic attacks involve me curling up in a ball and sobbing uncontrollably. Many people think that that is what a panic attack “must be,” but it isn’t. Panic, as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is “recurrent unexpected panic attacks. A panic attack is an abrupt surge of intense fear or intense discomfort that reaches a peak within minutes, and during which time four (or more) of the following symptoms occur; Note: The abrupt surge can occur from a calm state or an anxious state.

1. Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate.

2. Sweating.

3. Trembling or shaking.

4. Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering.

5. Feelings of choking.

6. Chest pain or discomfort.

7. Nausea or abdominal distress.

8. Feeling dizzy, unsteady, light-headed, or faint.

9. Chills or heat sensations.

10. Paresthesias (numbness or tingling sensations).

11. Derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself).

12. Fear of losing control or “going crazy.”

13. Fear of dying.

Note: Culture-specific symptoms (e.g., tinnitus, neck soreness, headache, uncontrollable screaming or crying) may be seen. Such symptoms should not count as one of the four required symptoms.”

Now, there are several ways to help someone who is experiencing a panic attack, and not all of these ways are suitable for everyone. For example, some people might want to be held or hugged to help them calm down, but others might lash out if they’re touched. Another example that may help someone experiencing a panic attack would be grounding techniques, such as the Five-Four-Three-Two-One technique. This technique helps bring a person out of their panicked state by having them list five things they can see, four things they can feel, three things they can hear, two things they can smell, and one thing they can taste. This technique is beneficial in that it brings the individual back to the present by having them identify aspects of their surroundings.

Hopefully, you won’t need these techniques for yourself or anyone you know. But at least you have some ideas of what to do if you or someone you know experiences a panic attack.

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