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  • Writer's pictureDr. Niemeyer

Panic Attacks: Why You Should Seek Help

The term “panic attack” or “anxiety attack” is thrown around a lot in conversation when explaining overwhelming anxiety or emotions. A true panic attack is a frightening and awful experience.

Generally, panic attacks occur “out of nowhere” and, although they are usually short in duration, the experience feels excruciating and as if it will “last forever.” Panic attacks are usually accompanied by emotions of fear/anxiety/helplessness and thoughts such as, “This is unbearable,” “I’m afraid that I’m dying,” or “I need to find help.”

Common physical symptoms of a panic attack include:

-Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate


-Trembling or shaking

-Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering

-Feeling of choking

-Chest pain or discomfort

-Abdominal distress

-Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint

-Derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (a feeling of being detached from oneself)

-Fear of losing control or going crazy

-Fear of dying

-Paresthesias (numbness or tingling sensations)

-Chills or heat sensations

By the time most people end up in therapy, they’ve seen many doctors, trying to find a physical cause for their attacks. They may feel discouraged to be told the root cause is psychological, because that sounds like someone is telling you “It’s all in your head.” The truth is, even though panic attacks are caused by anxiety, the physical experience is very real and it can be very frustrating to be told, “Don’t worry, it’s not real, it’s just your anxiety.”

So WHY should you seek help for panic attacks from a psychologist??


#1. Panic attacks feel terrifying and awful and often do not get better on their own. Instead, people will begin to avoid any possible trigger for a panic attack. Often, people come to therapy who avoid driving in cars, going to crowded places, or anywhere they may feel trapped. This can completely affect your social life, your occupation, and just general life enjoyment.

#2. Because there is good, effective treatment available! Cognitive behavioral therapists generally utilize interoceptive exposure and in vivo exposure to treat panic attacks. These treatments have been proven by scientific studies to significantly decrease or completely end panic attacks. Although the treatment is very effective and, even more importantly, fairly quick to work, not all psychologists are trained in this method. Be sure to interview your potential therapists about their training and experience before making your first appointment.

So how does Interoceptive Exposure work? Basically, we help to take away the FEAR of having a panic attack. Many people say, “The panic attack seemed to just come out of nowhere.” Or, they attribute the panic attack to the situation they were in, such as “I just can’t go to crowded restaurants. I always have panic attacks.” But truly, panic attacks are caused by the fear of having another attack. This fear causes people to overinterpret normal physical sensations (slight increase in heart rate, increased breathing) to signal the start of another attack. To put it very simply, exposure therapy helps to desensitive people to their own physical cues. After therapy, you will be able to say “Wow, I’m out of breath. Oh well.” Instead of, “Oh no, I’m out of breath, I’m going to have another panic attack!”

To sum it up, if you are experiencing regular panic attacks, reach out for help. There is quick, effective therapy available to help you. Don’t let panic attacks control your life. Reach out and make a change.

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