Did you know that roughly a third of the population has at least one panic attack in their lifetime? And did you know that, although terrifying, panic is usually very treatable? Keep reading to discover eleven interesting facts about panic attacks.
Here we go:
1. The first attack is usually the worst
Panic attacks can vary in intensity, but typically the first one will be by far the worst. Once you have experienced panic, you may start worrying about having other ones in the future, which can increase your levels of anxiety, however, you will be aware of what an attack feels like. So if you do experience more, they will probably be less intense.
Conversely, during your first panic attack, you don’t really know what’s going on, and you don’t know what to expect. You may think you have developed a serious disease, or that you’ve been poisoned, or, as we’ll see in a bit, that you’re having a heart attack.
Although panic attacks are nothing more than intense, sudden anxiety, and although they are not dangerous — their symptoms are very real. So when you experience one for the first time, and notice that your body is reacting in a seemingly dangerous way (for example, because your heart beats way too fast), it can be terrifying.
This creates a level of anxiety you probably never experienced before, and as a result, you are likely to have a very intense, full-blown panic attack.
2. Every panic attack can feel different
Although panic is usually very treatable (without antidepressants or any kind of medication), it can be insidious because symptoms may vary each time. This is true both for physical symptoms and psychological symptoms.
For example, during your first attack (which, as we’ve seen, is usually the worst and scariest) you may have a very high heart rate, hot flashes, and terrifying thoughts, such as the thought that you’re about to faint. Then, during your second attack you may only notice a slight headache, and a lower level of anxiety; during the third one, you may have cold extremities, and feel dizzy; and so on.
In most cases, this creates further stress simply because you never know what symptoms to expect. What if you have an attack at work, and it makes you faint? What if your next attack leaves you with permanent damage? In reality, panic is harmless, but it’s easy to get carried away by your own negative thoughts.
3. Different people have different triggers
Ultimately, the only thing that can truly trigger an attack is your own thoughts, as well as your overreaction to your own physical symptoms. It can be hard to believe at first, but it’s true (to understand how panic works as well as how to get rid of them, I encourage you to read this article).
Having said that, there may be certain situations where you are more likely to experience stress and anxiety and, in turn, panic. Some are quite common: for instance, being in a crowded space away from home, consuming stimulants, and overwork seem to be a trigger for most sufferers.
Then, there are situations that tend to trigger panic to you only. For example, in my case it would be overeating, or physical exercise. For some, it could be having an exam or a meeting at work; for others, it could be driving, or being in a space where they feel trapped. We all react differently to our environment; each person can have different triggers.
4. Attacks can happen days or weeks after the trigger
Here’s another surprising fact about panic: although most triggers are instant, in some cases you will have an attack days or even weeks after a certain negative event.
For example, if you have a very stressful day at work on Thursday, initially you may just feel tired, and only experience slight anxiety; then, during the weekend, you may wake up in the middle of the night with a full-blown panic attack (this is what happened to me years ago).
Interestingly enough, some people have reported experiencing panic during their holidays — a week or more after their last day of work. Similarly, some report that they had their first attacks well over a month after a major negative life event, such as the loss of a loved one.
Why does this happen? The theory is that our mind and body accumulate stress over time; we may not react emotionally to a certain event immediately, but it doesn’t mean that event wasn’t painful, or stressful. You can think of it as a virus that gives you symptoms only after some time you’ve caught it.
5. During an attack, you may think you’re going crazy…
This is quite common, too. Have you ever noticed that whenever you are anxious you find it difficult to concentrate and remember things? And you also start having a lot of negative thoughts, that are usually inaccurate?
Well, that’s what you usually experience during a panic attack, except it’s ten times worse. When you suddenly have a lot of terrifying thoughts and your mind is hyperactive, it may feel like you are losing control over your own mind, faint, or even become insane.
The good news is that, again, these are just your own thoughts. It’s simply impossible to go crazy all of a sudden, unless you’re doing some really weird drugs; that’s just not how our brain works. No one can become insane simply because of an attack, no matter how scary it is. And even though it is possible to faint if you hyperventilate, it’s extremely rare, so there’s no reason to worry about it.
6. Or even think you’re about to die
Someone who has never experienced panic, or doesn’t know what they feel like, may think this is absurd. Like, why and how could someone die simply because of a panic attack? Unfortunately, as we’ve seen earlier, the symptoms of panic attacks are very real.
If you suffer from panic yourself, you probably know what I mean. If you don’t, simply imagine having the symptoms of a heart attack right after you’ve overdosed on some illegal drug that makes you super anxious (seriously, that’s how bad an attack can be).
It’s relatively common to think that you’re about to die during a very intense attack, and each year many people rush to the hospital when it happens to them. Remember: although panic attacks can be intimidating, they are not dangerous. It’s impossible to die, become insane, or get long-term damage from any attack.
7. A poor diet increases the risk of having an attack
In my main article about getting rid of panic I have explained that if you suffer from panic attacks it is imperative that you change your lifestyle. It’s true that therapy (understanding how the attacks work, what they are, and how you can break the vicious cycle) is the most effective treatment, however you simply cannot ignore your lifestyle.
It’s well known that stimulants such as coffee can increase stress and anxiety, but what most people don’t realize is that a poor diet in general can increase your anxiety as well. For example, if you don’t eat enough calories, you may feel dizzy as your body is weaker; the same is true if you’re constantly dehydrated, or if you have nutrient deficiencies.
This is why it’s so important to have the healthiest possible diet, especially if you suffer from anxiety or panic. Too often we think that our body, our feelings, emotions, and thoughts are separate, but the truth is that they’re deeply interconnected. Optimal sleep and a proper diet don’t just nourish your body — they help your mind too.
8. Panic attacks are usually very easy to treat
When I was suffering from panic, I thought it would be a long-term thing. Because the symptoms were so scary, I thought there would be no way to get rid of the attacks quickly. Thankfully, I was wrong — a few sessions of cognitive behavioral therapy were enough to go back to a normal life completely.
It wasn’t just me being lucky — the vast majority of sufferers can heal from panic very quickly, and very easily. The eighth surprising fact about panic is that although it’s super scary, it’s usually very treatable, and we now know that therapy, rather than medication, is the best, fastest, and most effective way to treat panic attacks.
Now, in some cases it may take a little bit longer; everyone is different, and each case must be addressed by an experienced therapist. However in general, panic is easy to treat, especially if you don’t just go to therapy but also optimize your lifestyle, as explained earlier.
9. Panic attacks are relatively common
It is estimated that about a fifth to a third of the population will experience at least one panic attack in their lifetime. That’s probably a lot more than you thought. The thing is, panic attacks are quite common, although it can be an embarrassing topic, and not everyone feels comfortable sharing their experience.
If you suffer from a panic disorder, it may feel like it’s just you, but you’re definitely not alone. Knowing this is important — it helps you realize that you are dealing with a relatively common problem. Millions have had the same problem in the past, and millions will in the future. It’s not like it’s a super rare disease.
And because it’s a common issue, it’s something psychologists have studied for decades. As a matter of fact, any therapist who specializes in anxiety and panic has probably seen countless people with your same problem already, so yes, they will be able to help you if you are struggling.
10. Panic is nothing more than anxiety
I get it. Being anxious right before a date, or a job interview, and a full-blown panic attack are two completely different things. However, in both cases it’s all about anxiety, and when it comes to panic attacks, it’s simply overwhelming.
“Panic” can be a scary word, so to deal with the attacks, I believe you should always refer to them as anxiety. You can even call them excitement attacks, if you want. The point is that you should always see panic attacks for what they are — episodes of sudden and intense fear and anxiety — rather than seeing them as a horrible disease you have no control over, because clearly they’re not.
11. Perfectionists are more at risk
The last interesting fact about panic attacks is that perfectionists and all those who have very high standards, particularly when it comes to their own achievements in life, are much more likely to suffer from them.
If you think about it, it’s quite obvious: those who are rarely happy about their current situation and constantly strive to achieve more, are more likely to be successful (whatever success means to them), but on the other hand they’re also more likely to experience high levels of stress, which is the main risk factor for all panic disorders.
If you have big goals, that’s great, but you need to be 100 percent sure that those goals align with your own desires, personality, and attitude. Chasing something that’s not for you won’t make you fulfilled, and will fill your life with unnecessary anxiety — or in the worst cases, panic attacks. One more reason to get really clear on what you want, and stop being a perfectionist.