Have you ever felt extremely anxious for hours on end? Or felt an overwhelming amount of panic and physical symptoms within a short amount of time? These feelings may be symptoms of either an anxiety or panic attack, which are more common than many may think.
Alexandra (Sasha) Zagoloff, PhD, LP, child and adolescent psychologist with University of Minnesota Physicians (M Physicians) shares her insight on anxiety and panic attacks and how to treat them.
What are anxiety and panic attacks?
Anxiety and panic attacks are different from each other, presenting with varying symptoms and lasting for differing periods of time. An anxiety attack could last for an hour or two with no peak, whereas a panic attack could last 10-15 minutes with a peak. The human body may produce both of these responses when faced with triggers that can be unique to each person.
Dr. Zagoloff says some common triggers include claustrophobia, agoraphobia–fear of wide open spaces–performance situations and separation anxiety. “One thing I’ve written about that doesn’t often get discussed is a cluster of individuals who seem to have adult onset separation anxiety syndrome,” she says, “In the context of separation from a spouse, child or other attachment figure.”
Anxiety attacks can be brought on by any situation that provokes anxiety, leaving one extremely anxious and upset for a prolonged period of time.
How do you know if you are experiencing an anxiety or panic attack?
There are many signs that might indicate someone is experiencing an anxiety or panic attack. Sometimes, they might not know at all.
“One of the things that is really good to know is that people can have panic attacks and it's completely imperceptible,” Dr. Zagoloff explains.
Sometimes it can be clear when someone is overcome by fear and the response is going to be disruptive and distressing. Other times, however, one may seem completely calm, but you can’t tell that their heart is pounding and their breathing is heavy. Some may be shaky or crying as well.
When someone is anxious for a long period of time, they may become restless, agitated and unable to soothe themselves. Dr. Zagoloff also points out that those who experience panic attacks or panic disorder may have panic attacks in their sleep, which can be disruptive.
What can you do about anxiety or panic attacks?
Many treatment options exist for both anxiety and panic attacks. According to Dr. Zagoloff, exposure therapy is the gold standard for panic disorder. This would involve exposing the individual to situations that would elicit a panic attack. An example for someone triggered by bridges or tunnels might be going over a bridge or through a tunnel.
“Gradually helping the individual expose themselves to a situation that is fear inducing and paying attention to what we call safety behaviors are both important parts of effective exposure therapy,” says Dr. Zagoloff.
An example of a safety behavior could be having water if dry mouth is a common panic or anxiety symptom. It is important to remove these safety behaviors to have a complete and thorough exposure.
Dr. Zagoloff often encourages her patients to act against what their body tells them to do. Think: “While I am having these symptoms and may feel unsafe, I am safe.” She says this is the fastest way to address that panic. She also notes that getting adequate sleep can help reduce risk of anxiety and panic.
For some individuals, medication might be the most helpful route, especially for those with higher anxiety levels. Make an appointment with your doctor or one of M Physicians’ many providers to explore all of the options that may be available to help with these feelings of anxiety or panic.