Panic attacks don’t discriminate. No matter your age, race, or gender identity, a person can experience a panic attack at any time and any place—which is part of what makes panic attacks such a mystery. Despite the wonders of modern medicine, we still don’t really know what causes panic attacks or how to effectively stop them from occurring. Anxiety disorders, including panic attacks, can be passed down genetically, but scientists aren’t really sure how that works either.
While this lack of information is frustrating—especially for people who suffer from chronic panic attacks or find that panic attacks affect their life in a negative way—it’s important to debunk common misconceptions and stay educated about what panic attacks really are and the ways they can be prevented.
Panic attacks only happen to “crazy people”
Every year, around 11% of Americans experience a panic attack. Despite the fact that so many people experience panic attacks (around 330,000,000 in the US alone), it is still widely believed they’re a sign of a “nervous breakdown.” People might mistake the classic signs of a panic attack—dizziness, shaking, erratic breathing, a racing heartbeat—for another condition. Or they may simply choose to believe the person experiencing a panic attack is “going crazy.” In reality, there are a variety of reasons that someone might have a panic attack. And sometimes, they may not realize why they had a panic attack or what triggered them until much later.
Even though we live in a world where mental health issues are more widely acknowledged and supported than ever before, there’s still a lot of room for education about mental illnesses and their symptoms. Those who suffer from panic attacks are not crazy, insane, or having a breakdown. Boom. Debunked.
Panic attacks are for drama queens
It’s giving… Victorian era. Think: smelling salts, fainting rooms, and female hysteria. Some still believe that someone having a panic attack is seeking attention or having an overreaction to a mildly stressful situation. Are we surprised by this? After all, our parents’ generation still thinks depression is just the big sad, so it makes sense that some would discount panic attacks as vying for attention.
In reality, people suffering from a panic attack have very little control over their symptoms. Their fight or flight reflex has been triggered, usually by a stressful event, mental illness, or change in environment. Panic attacks are involuntary and can happen suddenly, without any warning.
Anxiety = panic attacks
Anxiety and panic attacks are not the same things, although panic attacks are one symptom of an anxiety or panic disorder. Only 2-3% of people who experience a panic attack will go on to develop a panic disorder. In fact, anxiety is a much broader term that encompasses other mental health disorders, such as social anxiety or OCD. Panic attacks aren’t specific to any mental health issue and can happen to people who have depression or bipolar disorder—and even to those who don’t have any diagnosed mental health issues.
Although you might hear “anxiety attack” and “panic attack” used interchangeably, they are actually two separate issues. Anxiety attacks build up slowly over time and can cause restless sleep and irritability. On the other hand, panic attacks are sudden and cause dissociation from the world around you. Whether or not you have an anxiety disorder, you can still experience a panic attack at any time or any place.
Panic attacks cause a loss of control
To a person experiencing a panic attack for the first time, it might seem like you have lost complete control over your body and mind. It might be difficult to breathe, walk, or talk. You may lose the ability to see or hear what’s going on around you. Your thoughts will likely be racing, only furthering the idea that you’re not in control.
However, even though you’re probably embarrassed and terrified, you’re not in danger—and you’re not a danger to others. These feelings of being outside of your body (depersonalization) and being disconnected from reality (dissociation) are caused by a lack of blood and oxygen in the brain. Once your breathing has calmed and the panic attack reaches its peak, after about ten minutes, you will feel in control of your body and emotions again.
Breathing is the cure
I can’t even begin to count the number of TV shows and movies that have completely butchered the reality of panic attacks. Still, my pet peeve remains the same: the “just breathe” trope. Allow me to paint the scene. A character begins to show signs of distress. Their breathing is erratic, they’re too dizzy to stand, and all they can do is grab at their chest. Suddenly, our hero comes to the rescue. He helps lower them slowly to the ground, puts his hand over their chest, and says, “Breathe with me. Just breathe. Just breathe.”
I take issue with these scenes, for several reasons. One, it perpetuates the romanticization of mental illness—which occurs far too often in the media. We love to glorify a strong male character who helps a weaker (seemingly, physically and mentally) female character through a mental health crisis, all by telling her to breathe and touching her chest. Secondly, it spreads misinformation that panic attacks can be cured simply by breathing, which is just not true.
In her article debunking common myths, Dr. Nusrat Habib Rana says, “Hyperventilation during an attack already strains the breathing mechanism enough; taking further deep breaths drastically reduces bodily oxygen at cause dizziness and numbness, which can induce feelings of suffocation and more rapid breathing. Instead, let the attack run its course and focus on slow, shallow breathing.”
Overcoming panic attacks is impossible
Even though we don’t yet have the science or medicine to explain panic attacks, there are several methods that have been proven to help prevent panic disorder from worsening. Of course, not all forms of treatment will work for everyone the same way, so it’s important to try different methods to find what works best for you. Some find that medication provides relief from their panic attacks, while others benefit from mindfulness meditation and breathwork to help them stay calm in the moment and react appropriately to triggering events. Others use Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to manage symptoms of anxiety and learn how to cope with panic attacks.
No matter which methods work or don’t work for you, it’s important to remember that panic attacks are not as rare as you think and you’re not alone in your fear and pain. You are not crazy, dramatic, damaged, or broken.
If you or a loved one is experiencing a mental health crisis, you can now call or text 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline (formerly known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline). It connects people with mental health counselors 24 hours a day, seven days a week.