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Panic Attacks: What They Are & How to Deal When They Strike


Whether you’ll be leaving home for the first time next fall, are still searching for that dream job or are handling an overwhelming internship, stress can get the best of anyone. Anxiety is a normal reaction to stress, but it can leave you feeling anything but normal. Panic attacks fall under the umbrella of anxiety disorders, where you feel an intense fear, sometimes leaving you uncertain about what you’re even fearful about. We’re here to debunk panic attacks and figure out what they are, why they happen and how to handle them.

Anxiety and panic attacks

Unless you have had experience with anxiety—and maybe even if you haven’t— most people are unsure of what anxiety is. It’s a term thrown around all so casually, leaving collegiettes with an ambiguous understanding of what it’s all about. According to Dr. Ramani Durvasula, licensed clinical psychologist and professor, an anxiety disorder is a psychiatric disorder that can range from worry about a specific event (like an upcoming deadline) to an extreme fear of a general situation (such as public speaking). There are six types of anxiety disorders, each with their own symptoms and treatments—one of which is panic disorder, classified by repeated and unexpected panic attacks. 

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) defines a panic attack as a sudden onset of intense fear or discomfort with varying symptoms such as sweating, shaking, dizziness and chest pain. Nearly six million American adults experience these seemingly out-of-the-blue attacks each year.

Pamela*, a senior at Elon University, has experienced regular panic attacks for the past eight years. “My anxiety attacks start when I get that ‘pit in your stomach’ feeling and it just won’t go away,” she says. “From there this feeling of being totally overwhelmed consumes me to a point where I physically cannot move forward with my day.”

Unlike Pamela, Lauren*, a junior at Northwestern University, had never experienced anxiety before her first panic attack. “All of the sudden I started crying and hyperventilating,” she says of her experience. “I felt light-headed and really confused, like I didn’t have control over what I was doing. I didn’t really know why it was happening because nothing specific happened to make me feel like I should be crying.”

Symptoms vary from person to person, and can send many to the ER with a fear of a serious health issue. A panic attack typically takes the shape of at least four of the following symptoms, as defined by the ADAA.

  • Palpitations, pounding heart or accelerated heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Trembling and shaking
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feelings of choking
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Nausea
  • Feeling dizzy, unsteady, light-headed or faint
  • Chills or heart sensations
  • Numbness or tingling sensations
  • Feelings of unreality or being detached from yourself
  • Fear of losing control or craziness
  • Fear of dying

On their own, many of these symptoms mimic other diseases and disorders such as heart attacks. Put a few together, and you might just have a full-fledged panic attack. The terror of this anxiety often lasts under 10 minutes, although sometimes linger for nearly 30 minutes.

Causes of panic

Being a collegiette comes many pressures, both in school and out. College life causes a change in routine and social environment, as well as increased workload, financial concerns and strained relationships. According to Dr. Carole Lieberman, psychiatrist and author, college students might be more prone to panic attacks. “Not only because of college stress, but because they are separated from the support system of their families,” she says.

Many believe you are either someone who “has anxiety” or not, but the truth is, anyone can be susceptible to panic attacks and other symptoms of anxiety. Panic can be brought on by a number of factors, both biological and environmental, including a change in environment, substance abuse, family history and major life stressors.

Although the initial attack may develop out-of-the-blue, panic attacks can lead to an unsettling fear of future attacks, causing a snowball effect of anxiety. “After the first panic attack, you continue to be concerned that it will happen again and may alter your behavior to try to avoid another one, such as by avoiding situations similar to the one that triggered the first panic attack,” Dr. Lieberman says.

How to deal

Just as symptoms vary, methods to manage panic attacks are different from person to person. Lauren focuses on deep breathing and drinking water to remain calm. For Pamela, she learned that managing anxiety and panic attacks is more preventative. “I’ve gotten pretty good at recognizing the feeling I get when a panic attack is on its way,” she says. “Instead of letting that feeling build, I will work on trying to relax. The best method for me is talking myself through whatever is causing me anxiety and thinking logically about how it will all be okay.”

Although every attack is different, the following steps can help manage the anxiety of an attack.

  1. The first step to dealing with a panic attack is to accept what is happening. Realize the onset of symptoms before allowing your body to work itself up. 
  2. Breathe. This might sound obvious, but often times, attacks are classified by shortness of breath. Focusing on deep breaths can help you relax and focus on what is happening to your body.
  3. Relax and stretch your muscles to relieve your body from clenching up.
  4. Talk yourself through the anxiety. Remember Pamela’s advice, and tell yourself that it will all be okay. All panic attacks end sooner or later. Don’t forget to remind yourself of that.

In addition to relaxation techniques and stress management, psychotherapy can be helpful for some to talk through and understand their anxiety. In situations of reoccurring anxiety, medications can also be prescribed to help control symptoms. Isolated attacks are not reason for worry, but if you have repeated (four or more) panic attacks or lingering fear of future attacks, the American Psychological Association suggests going to mental health professionals for diagnosis and counseling.

Prevent the panic

As collegiettes, we’ll be the first to admit it: We don’t always take care of ourselves as much as we’d like. Some steps to deal with anxiety are as simple as a good night’s sleep, which can help your body cope with excess stress. “My doctor recommended exercising regularly, which I found helps to manage my anxiety and reduce the number of panic attacks I have,” says Pamela.

Dr. Durvasula also recommends exercising, getting enough sleep, meditating, avoiding drugs and alcohol and accessing social support (real life support, not just online). She also puts emphasis on the importance of building relaxation times into your schedule, such as concerts, time with friends, hikes; whatever your idea of a good time is. You heard us—doctor’s orders!

There is no doubt that panic attacks are personal; everyone’s symptoms are different, and everyone’s solutions vary. Even if you wouldn’t consider yourself an anxious person, self-care and the methods to deal with everyday stress can be preventative of future anxiety and might just prevent a panic attack from happening in the first place.

*Names have been changed.

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