Over a million Canadian adults experience panic attacks each year, yet most people are unaware of the early signs that one is coming on. A panic attack involves a sudden feeling of extreme fear or dread, combined with physical symptoms such as a racing heartbeat, sweating, shaking, shortness of breath, nausea, dizziness, numbness, and chills or hot flashes. These symptoms become increasingly intense, and it’s very common for those experiencing panic attacks to think that they are having a heart attack or dying. Many end up in hospital emergency rooms before they realize that they were experiencing a panic attack. The good news is that panic attacks reach their peak within 10 minutes and then subside fairly quickly.
Stress, anxiety, exhaustion or even excessive exercise can trigger a panic attack. Physiologically, the fight or flight response is activated, and the body reacts as if there were an immediate threat present, producing the rush of adrenaline that generates the distressing psychological and physical symptoms described above. Though panic attacks often seem to arise suddenly and unpredictably, most of the time there are early warning signs that begin up to an hour beforehand.
These are the two most common early signs of a panic attack:
1) Breathing too quickly: A person’s rate of respiration often increases before a panic attack, and so noticing that one’s breathing has become more shallow, rapid or laboured is key to warding off worsening symptoms.
2) Increased heart rate: A racing heartbeat is another important indicator that a panic attack may be developing. It’s important to recognize if your heart is beating too quickly or too hard, or if it feels like it’s fluttering or skipping beats.
If you are able to identify these early warning signs of a panic attack, you can begin implementing relaxation, breathing, and other strategies to calm the nervous system before symptoms intensify. This approach trains your mind and body that there is no actual threat that warrants the fight-or-flight response, and it can reduce the incidence of panic attacks in the future. A qualified therapist is an essential resource to help you learn and practice coping strategies for managing a panic attack, as well as identify the early signs before one arises.
By: Zoë Laksman, Psy.D, C.Psych and Laura Clarridge, Ph.D.
Zoë Laksman has practiced as a Registered Clinical Psychologist at The Clinic on Dupont since 2007. Laura Clarridge is a certified executive coach who helps her clients find fulfilling educational and career pathways. Their backgrounds and training have shaped their interest in promoting improved psychological health, interpersonal functioning and wellness. They work together as a clinical team and as the developers of The Clinic on Dupont’s online presence.