When anxiety attacks, it’s normal to feel overwhelmed and out of control. Anxiety attacks themselves (also called panic attacks) are an overwhelming feeling that can cause a variety of effects on your mind and body. It can be a confusing feeling, but we’re here to help you learn more about what you, as a female, might experience during an anxiety attack.
If you’ve previously struggled with anxiety or panic attacks, or think you’ve just had your first one, it’s common to feel overwhelmed and worried. You probably want to prevent them from ever happening again.
Luckily, there are ways to reduce the severity and frequency of panic attacks. But first, before we get to solutions, it’s important to understand how and why panic attacks happen.
Anxiety “attacks” can mean a couple of things, so let’s differentiate between anxiety — which is a feeling of relative unease and excessive worry — and panic, which is a more severe and intense anxiety, and the one responsible for the “attacks.”
Panic attacks, in other words, are a sudden and intense rushes of fear and discomfort. It’s the breathing-into-a-paper-bag kind of panic — the one people often mistake for a heart attack.
In fact, unexpected panic attacks are responsible for a significant number of hospital visits. People mistake panic for other health issues and, well, it makes them panic more.
So why do these attacks happen? Well, there’s no specific cause, trigger or risk factor that is solely responsible for panic attacks or anxiety attacks.
Some people may have panic attacks when they feel like they’re not in control of a given situation or when faced with stressful situations.
Others may have panic attacks linked to panic disorders or other forms of anxiety, other mental health disorders, trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, adverse childhood conditions, family history, substance use and more.
In short, there are lots of reasons one might have an anxiety attack, from separation anxiety disorder to agoraphobia and all situations — people-related or not —in-between. In fact, you may even experience different triggers for different anxiety attacks.
Gender seems to have little effect on your anxiety attack symptoms, with both men and women experiencing the same range of symptoms. But what gender does impact is your risk of having an anxiety disorder.
The numbers are all over the place depending on the particular question you ask, but regardless of what source you’re reading, research generally finds that women are multiple times more likely than men to develop anxiety disorders.
In the case of panic attacks and panic disorders, women are twice as likely as men to develop these attacks, and while we’d love to see these numbers in studies of CEOs and corporate leadership, this isn’t the category we should be number one in.
This means that the clearest point we can make is that women should be twice as willing (at minimum) to seek treatment when they see signs of panic attacks or anxiety attacks, or begin experiencing any of the telltale signs of anxiety disorders.
Treatment can help you get your anxiety under control and identify any underlying causes of your panic attacks.
Let’s talk more about what a panic attack actually looks like.
No two people will necessarily have the same physical symptoms or psychological symptoms when experiencing a panic attack, but whether your panic comes from social situations or as a result of a traumatic event, you’ll likely experience some of the most common symptoms.
In addition to your feelings of panic and anxiety, you may experience:
Increased heart rate
Fear of death
Shortness of breath
Stomach pain or upset stomach
An intense fear of losing control
Truth be told, you will likely struggle the first few times you experience an attack. These severe and sudden symptoms can make you literally feel like you’re going to die, like your heart is about to explode or like your body is shutting down in front of you.
The important first step is just to make it through the ten minutes or so it takes the symptoms to peak, even though those tingling, sweating, trembling and shaking symptoms will make it feel pretty rough. After your racing heart subsides, it’s time to work on prevention — which starts with getting help.
If your quality of life has been affected by anxiety or any related mental health conditions, it may be time to start working on a treatment plan. Treatments for the various types of anxiety disorders may change based on your unique needs, and your healthcare provider may look at your family history of anxiety and other risk factors to determine the best treatments for you.
Generally though, there are three key elements of treatment: therapeutic support, anti-anxiety medications and changes to your daily habits and routines.
Let’s look at each of these separately.
Therapy is one of the most effective tools for managing the symptoms of panic disorder and the underlying feelings of anxiety that can often lead to panic attacks. The current gold standard is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a technique for learning to identify, isolate and eventually suppress the sudden feelings and intrusive thoughts that can lead to anxieties. With some practice, it can help you control those feelings of anxiety in everyday situations.
Antidepressants aren’t just for depression — in fact, these mental health meds are effective in moderating the serotonin levels in your brain, which can have beneficial effects for depression, anxiety and more psychiatric disorders.
An evidenced-based treatment regimen may begin with a serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) to balance your serotonin levels and reduce mood swings and sudden feelings of being overwhelmed.
Consult a mental health professional for more information.
Truth be told, that rapid heartbeat might not just be because of the anxiety — seeking medical care for other health issues and generally taking better care of yourself can help reduce panic attacks and mitigate some of the common symptoms of anxiety. In particular, cutting back on recreational drugs, caffeine, alcohol and smoking can help ease anxiety. Incorporating some relaxation techniques, like meditation, into your daily life may also help.
Whether you’ve just survived your first or five hundredth panic attack, you’re probably wondering, “how do I stop this from ever happening again?”
The answer lies above, in treatment.
Can you get these treatments without professional support? No, and frankly you shouldn’t be trying to find medication or therapy without the assistance and guidance of a mental health professional.
Invest the time and effort today to get the mental health support you need. A happier version of you will thank you tomorrow.
Kristin Hall is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with decades of experience in clinical practice and leadership.
She has an extensive background in Family Medicine as both a front-line healthcare provider and clinical leader through her work as a primary care provider, retail health clinician and as Principal Investigator with the NIH.
Certified through the American Nurses Credentialing Center, she brings her expertise in Family Medicine into your home by helping people improve their health and actively participate in their own healthcare.
Kristin is a St. Louis native and earned her master’s degree in Nursing from St. Louis University, and is also a member of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners. You can find Kristin on LinkedIn for more information.
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