Debunking 7 Common Myths About Panic Attacks
Have you ever experienced a sudden rush of fear that comes with a racing heartbeat, sweating, trembling, shallow breathing, nausea, and dizziness? You may feel like you are losing control, going crazy, or going to die.
Yes, this is a panic attack. If you have ever experienced a panic attack, you know what it feels like.
It is quite common. Approximately 5% of Australians go through panic disorders during their lifetime, with around 3–4% experiencing them within a 12-month period.
Understanding a Panic Attack
A panic attack occurs when you feel an overwhelming surge of fear or anxiety. Your body responds with physical symptoms like a racing heart, sweaty palms, trembling, difficulty breathing, chest discomfort, and a spinning sensation.
The cause of these unpleasant physical symptoms is the fight-or-flight response. It is a physiological reaction to a perceived threat.
When the brain perceives danger, it triggers the release of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol to prepare your body for either fight or flight. It typically lasts for several minutes and can be very distressing.
Though panic attacks are frightening but not dangerous, there are common myths about panic attacks. Those myths can make it even more difficult for people to cope with them and prevent them from seeking help from health professionals.
7 Common Myths About Panic Attacks
Myth 1: Panic attacks are a sign of weakness, overreaction, or mental illness.
This misunderstanding comes from the stigma surrounding mental health problems overall. Many people believe panic disorder to be a sign of being weak, cowardly, or unable to cope with life’s challenges.
They also think that panic attacks are a symptom of a serious mental disorder, such as schizophrenia or psychosis.
But that's not correct. Panic attacks aren't a sign of being weak or having mental issues. They're a usual response to feeling danger or a threat. They can occur in anyone, no matter their personality, background, or mental state.
Panic attacks are not a character flaw or a personal failure. They are a common and treatable condition affecting millions of people worldwide.
Myth 2: Panic attacks can cause heart attacks or strokes.
Many people experiencing panic attacks worry about physical symptoms. Such symptoms as chest pain, racing heartbeat, shallow breathing, or shortness of breath make them think they are having a heart attack or a stroke.
Though some symptoms of a panic attack are similar to those of a heart attack or stroke, panic attacks are not a medical emergency.
Panic attacks themselves cannot cause heart attacks or strokes. They are not harmful to your physical health. They do not increase your risk of developing cardiovascular or cerebrovascular diseases, either.
But people who have a history of heart or brain issues should consult a doctor to be on the safe side.
Myth 3: Breathing into a paper bag or splashing cold water on your face can stop a panic attack.
Many people think panic attacks happen because of hyperventilation or overheating, but that's not true. This is actually a myth.
Some people believe that breathing into a paper bag can help restore the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood, which helps with shallow breathing. We would not recommend it because it can cause a lack of oxygen in the brain and a loss of consciousness.
There is also a belief that splashing cold water on the face can help cool down the body and calm the nerves.
Breathing into a paper bag or splashing cold water on the face may not help stop a panic attack. It may even make it worse by increasing the sense of suffocation or shock.
Hyperventilation or overheating are not causes of panic attacks. They are the result of a complicated interplay between psychological and physiological factors, including genetics, fear, stress, and brain chemistry.
Instead of those methods, it is better to do slow and deep breathing and relax your muscles. Tell yourself you are safe, and the panic will go away.
Myth 4: Panic attacks only happen to people with anxiety disorders.
This misconception assumes that panic attacks come directly from outside stress or inner concerns.
So, they only happen to people with many problems in their lives, such as relationship issues or health concerns, or to those with anxiety, low self-confidence, or poor coping skills.
But this is not true. They can happen to anyone, regardless of their level of stress or anxiety. They can happen even when there is no obvious reason or trigger for them.
Experiencing panic attacks doesn't mean you're weak or can't handle stress or anxiety. They are a sign of sensitivity and vulnerability to fear and arousal, which can come from many factors that are beyond your control.
Myth 5: Panic attacks are always triggered by something specific or obvious.
This misunderstanding comes from thinking that panic attacks always have clear and easy-to-spot causes. Some believe that something specific or obvious, like a phobia, trauma, or a stressful event, can cause panic attacks.
So, they can prevent panic attacks by staying away from triggers or getting ready for them ahead of time. But that is not the case.
Panic attacks don't always have clear or obvious causes. Anything that makes you feel in danger, even if it doesn't make sense, can trigger them. It could be your thoughts, emotions, memories, or sensations.
Sometimes, they can happen without any apparent trigger at all. They are unpredictable and uncontrollable. So, you cannot prevent them by avoiding triggers or planning.
Myth 6: Panic attacks will go away on their own or with time.
This misinformation is based on the hope that panic attacks are temporary and self-limiting.
Some people believe that they will go away on their own or with time, without any intervention or treatment. Others think they are just a reaction to stress that will pass once it is resolved.
There is also a belief that attacks will become less frequent and severe as a person gets used to them or learns to cope with them better.
But this is untrue. Panic attacks will not go away on their own or with time. They are a chronic and recurrent condition that requires professional help and treatment.
Without treatment, they can become more frequent and severe over time, affecting your quality of life and functioning.
They can also lead to other problems, such as agoraphobia, depression, alcohol or drug abuse, and suicide.
Myth 7: People who have panic attacks can be cured by medication.
Many people believe that panic disorder can be treated with just one method or approach.
Some of them think that they can cure panic disorder with medication alone. They believe that medication can eliminate the physical symptoms of panic attacks.
Others suffering from panic disorder also believe that medication or therapy can work instantly or permanently, without any side effects or relapses.
Yet, that's incorrect. Medication and therapy alone can't cure this condition because it is complicated and needs a complete treatment plan that considers everything.
The best treatment for panic disorder is a combination of medication and therapy, along with other interventions and supports, such as lifestyle changes, self-help strategies, peer support, and education.
Medication and therapy can help reduce the frequency and severity of panic attacks, but they are not a magic bullet or a quick fix. They require time, commitment, and cooperation to work effectively and safely.
What therapy can help people with panic disorder?
If you suffer from frequent, recurring, and unexpected panic attacks, you may have a condition called panic disorder.
Unfortunately, if not treated, people with panic disorder have a higher risk of developing other mental and physical health problems, such as depression, generalised anxiety, or substance abuse. So, getting help from a professional can effectively manage panic disorder and prevent the development of other mental issues.
A therapist will help you identify the triggers and patterns of your panic attacks. He will also teach you coping skills to reduce your anxiety and fear.
Psychotherapy, such as Brain Working Recursive Therapy (BWRT) or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), is often used to treat panic disorder. Both are effective treatments that can address underlying problems that can trigger a panic attack.
With psychotherapy, you can learn to change your thoughts and behaviours that make you more prone to panic and develop a more positive and realistic outlook on yourself and your situation.
Panic disorder is a common condition affecting millions of people worldwide. Still, there are many misconceptions that stop people from seeking help.
The truth about panic attacks is that they are not a sign of weakness, overreacting, or mental illness. Rather, they are a sign of sensitivity and vulnerability to fear and arousal beyond your control.
It is important to seek help from a mental health practitioner to prevent the development of other mental health conditions.