Panic attacks are sudden periods of intense fear that may include palpitations, sweating, shaking, shortness of breath, numbness, or a feeling that something bad is going to happen. Typically they last for about 30 minutes. But the duration can vary from seconds to hours. Additionally, there may be a fear of losing control or chest pain. However, panic attacks themselves are not dangerous physically.
In the United States panic attacks affect about 11% of the population. And they are more common in females than males.
Signs and Symptoms
Panic attacks typically include some of these signs or symptoms:
- Sense of impending doom or danger
- Fear of loss of control or death
- Rapid, pounding heart rate
- Trembling or shaking
- Shortness of breath or tightness in your throat
- Hot flashes
- Abdominal cramping
- Chest pain
- Dizziness, lightheadedness or faintness
- Numbness or tingling sensation
- Feeling of unreality or detachment
These feelings may provoke a strong urge to escape or flee the place where the attack began. This is a consequence of the “fight-or-flight response,” in which the hormone causing this response is released in significant amounts. And this response floods the body with hormones, particularly epinephrine (adrenaline), which help it in defending against harm.
A panic attack is a response of the sympathetic nervous system. The physical symptoms are interpreted with alarm in people prone to panic attacks. As a result, this can increase anxiety and form a positive feedback loop.
Panic attacks are distinguished from other forms of anxiety by their intensity and their sudden, episodic nature. Additionally, they are often experienced in conjunction with anxiety disorders and other mental health conditions. However, panic attacks are not generally indicative of a mental disorder.
So what causes panic attacks?
Panic attacks can occur as part of a number of disorders including panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, depression, and medical problems. They can occur unexpectedly or be triggered by an event, smell, or sound. Also, smoking and psychological stress can increase the risk of having a panic attack.
There are long-term, biological, environmental, and social causes of panic attacks. Panic disorder often occurs in early adulthood. However, it may appear at any age. It occurs more frequently in women and more often in people with above-average intelligence.
Panic attacks may occur due to short-term stressors. Significant personal loss– including an emotional attachment to a romantic partner– life transitions, and significant life changes may all trigger a panic attack.
People will often experience panic attacks as a direct result of exposure to an object/situation for which they have a phobia. Panic attacks may also become situationally-bound when certain situations are associated with panic due to previously experiencing an attack in that particular situation.
And what treatment is available?
Treatment of panic attacks should be directed at the underlying cause. In those with frequent attacks, counseling or medications may be used.
Panic disorder can be effectively treated with a variety of interventions. This usually includes psychological therapies and medication.
- Caffeine, smoking, and alcohol use may cause or exacerbate panic attacks.
- Increased aerobic exercise such as running have been shown to have a positive effect in combating panic attacks. There is evidence that suggests that this effect is correlated to the release of exercise-induced endorphins and the subsequent reduction of the stress hormone cortisol.
- Muscle relaxation techniques are useful to some individuals.
- Breathing exercises can also be effective for those suffering from anxiety. One such breathing exercise is a 5-2-5 count. Using the stomach (or diaphragm)—and not the chest—inhale (feel the stomach come out, as opposed to the chest expanding) for 5 seconds. As the maximal point at inhalation is reached, hold the breath for 2 seconds. Then slowly exhale, over 5 seconds. Repeat this cycle twice and then breathe ‘normally’ for 5 cycles (1 cycle = 1 inhale + 1 exhale). The point is to focus on the breathing and relax the heart rate. Regular diaphragmatic breathing may be achieved by extending the exhale by counting or humming.
- Meditation and yoga may also be helpful in the treatment of panic disorders.
- Also, getting adequate sleep and eating a healthy diet are also beneficial in managing panic attacks.
So how does music therapy fit in?
Music can be used in a variety of ways to help someone learn to manage their panic attacks.
• Explore personal feelings and therapeutic issues such as self-esteem or personal insight
• Make positive changes in mood and emotional states
• Have a sense of control over life through successful experiences
• Enhance awareness of self and environment
• Express oneself both verbally and non-verbally
• Develop coping and relaxation skills
• Support healthy feelings and thoughts
• Improve reality testing and problem solving skills
• Develop independence and decision making skills
• Adopt positive forms of behavior
• Resolve conflicts leading to stronger family and peer relationships
So if you’re curious about how music therapy or GIM can help you with your anxiety or panic attacks, please contact me! I’m always happy to answer questions!