Am I Having a Panic Attack? Symptoms and Treatments for Panic Disorder


By Jessica Lyman, Lead Therapist, The Light Program Partial Hospitalization (PHP) Program

As the COVID-19 virus sweeps through the population, so does fear and anxiety. Google Trends reports that searches for “coronavirus symptoms” have risen by 100% over the last month – and there has been a simultaneous increase in searches for “panic attack symptoms.” It’s no coincidence that one may be triggering the other, especially in individuals who may be more sensitive to stress or who may already have been struggling with one or more mental health conditions.

How to Tell if You Are Having a Panic Attack or Suffer from Panic Disorder

A panic attack is a sudden, inexplicable series of physical symptoms including a tight chest, shortness of breath, sweating, racing thoughts, and a feeling of being trapped or crawling out of your skin. Panic attacks are a driving force for hospital Emergency Room visits, since the symptoms feel similar to a heart attack.

Panic disorder develops when you experience multiple, repeated panic attacks, leading to a cycle of feeling unsafe, out of control, and anxious in public due to an overwhelming fear of having another panic attack. This fear can spark a chain reaction of physical and mental symptoms that leads to another panic attack. While it is not known what causes panic attacks or panic disorder, genetics, stress, traumatic events, and major life changes can contribute to their onset.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), almost 5% of Americans experience panic disorder at some point in their lives. When someone is in the grip of a panic disorder, a trained clinician can help.

How Mental Health Treatment Can Help with Panic Disorder

Last fall, I worked with a client named Joe*, who was a physician finishing up his residency at a local hospital. Joe came to us because he was struggling with extreme, recurring panic attacks. In the three months prior, he had been making trips to the ER on a weekly basis, thinking each time that he was having a heart attack.

When he got married, he and his wife-to-be came up with an escape route in case he suffered a panic attack during their wedding. He was prescribed benzodiazepines to help reduce symptoms, but they did not address the root cause of his disorder. His quality of life was being greatly affected and so he sought treatment with The Light Program.

While in our intensive Partial Hospitalization (PHP) Program, Joe learned about the clinical definition of a panic attack and the techniques and skills we teach to prevent and manage them. As a physician, he had difficulty accepting that there was nothing medically wrong with him and was skeptical when we told him that he had the mental ability to manage his physical symptoms. However, he was able to test this ability in a safe, therapeutic environment.

Over the course of several weeks, Joe experienced multiple panic attacks while in program. When they occurred, I was able to walk him through the uncomfortable symptoms using mindfulness and exposure techniques, showing him that he could surf the waves of intense emotions and panic. As distressing as these feelings are, they do eventually pass. He learned to trust himself to work through those strong feelings. In addition, our psychiatrist referred Joe for genetic testing to determine an appropriate medication regimen for him.

Do you Have Panic Attacks or Panic Disorder?

If Joe’s story resonates with you, seeking out an experienced therapist or mental health program can be a first step to finding relief. Treatment programs offer the psychoeducation, mindfulness skills, exposure techniques and evidence-based treatments that can be very effective in managing symptoms of panic disorder. Most importantly, the group setting will connect you with peers who are experiencing similar issues, letting you know you aren’t alone.

If you think you might need help for panic attacks and/or a panic disorder, call our admissions line to set up an evaluation: (610) 644-6464.

* Name has been changed to protect client identity