Am I Having a Panic Attack?

Panic attacks, or “panic disorder” as it’s now called, is not all in your head. Out of nowhere you feel like you are having a heart attack: sweat pours off of your face, you feel lightheaded and faint, and you have chest pains. Many people who experience these types of attacks end up in the emergency room and are told that there is nothing wrong with them.

I worked many years in a very high stress job. Towards the end of my career, I started having panic attacks on the way to work. I would be driving along and suddenly, for no reason, I would start to feel like I was going to pass out. I started sweating and clutching my chest. Most of the time I would pull over and wait for the attack to subside, but once I had to call an employee and have them come and get me under the pretense that my car had broken down. The weird thing about it was that once I got to my place of employment, the thing that was causing the attacks, I would settle down and be OK.

Finally, I went to see a psychologist. He specialized in a discipline called “cognitive therapy.” Cognitive therapy works by allowing the patient to realize and stop dysfunctional thinking. There are ten common errors that people make in their thinking that can cause problems. One is generalization: My experience in the past has been this, so future experiences will turn out the same. There’s also black and white thinking: there is no middle ground, when in reality pretty much everything is a shade of gray. You get the idea.

After a few sessions that showed me how to stop an attack before it happens, I was cured. It is kind of amazing, but I haven’t had an attack since and that was almost twenty-years-ago. So how do you recognize that you have panic disorder instead of just having a case of the “jitters?”

First off most panic attacks happen out of the blue. They strike when there is absolutely no reason for them. Usually an event such as a meeting with the boss or a speech will precipitate a case of the jitters. In a panic attack you are completely shut down and you may hyperventilate and actually pass out. The first thing to do if you think you are having panic attacks is to talk to your doctor. You need to rule out any physical problems with your heart because these can be very serious.

If a bum ticker is not the problem, then do try to see a therapist as panic disorder is one of the most treatable of the anxiety disorders.