The Science of Panic Attacks: What You May Not Know


Panic attacks can happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time. And they are more common than you think. As many as 25% of people have one at some point in their lives (Kessler et al., 2006).

What is a panic attack?

The word “panic” may sound like something that’s all in your head. Yet when it comes to panic attacks, the symptoms are mostly physical. They include:

  • Chest tightness
  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Shaking
  • Dizziness
  • Sweating

Fear of another attack often follows the first attack, explains Robert Cuyler, PhD, chief clinical officer of Freespira. Often people feel like they’re dying—not surprising with sudden chest pain. Some people feel like they’re outside of their own body (derealization). They become terrified of having another panic attack and begin to avoid situations that they believe could trigger another one.


What causes panic attacks

Sometimes panic attacks can happen when you’re under stress. Other times they may be triggered by a specific situation like freeway driving. But not always. “Panic attacks can seem to come out of the blue without any clear trigger,” says Cuyler.  “Panic can run in families and there are likely genetic factors at play.”

For some people, breathing in too much air which lowers exhaled carbon dioxide levels can trigger panic attacks. And the trait seems to be linked in families, though it doesn’t cause panic attacks for everyone (van Beek & Griez, 2000). That’s why many experts believe learning to breathe in a way which won’t trigger panic attacks can be a powerful tool to prevent them.


How panic attacks can turn into a cycle

“Think of the panic attack as a sudden, exaggerated fear response that’s out of proportion to the real danger,” says Cuyler. A lot of the harm can come afterwards in the ways you may try to cope. Even if the initial panic attack seemed to come out of nowhere, your brain starts to make associations. In time, those associations can become triggers leading to more anxiety and panic attacks.


The effects of panic attacks

Fear of panic attacks, or trying to avoid them, takes a toll on your whole life. Many people who experience panic attacks start to avoid certain things. For example, you might avoid driving or going to big box stores because you’re afraid of having a panic attack there. You might skip class because you’re afraid of being called on. You might avoid elevators because you’re afraid of having a panic attack inside, and not being able to escape.

Panic attacks—and the ways people cope—cause challenges with relationships, work, school, and more. Problems linked with panic attacks include:

  • Frequent health concerns and trips to the doctor
  • Depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues
  • Increased risk of suicide or thoughts of suicide
  • Alcohol and substance misuse
  • Changes in relationships with family or friends

What you can do if you have panic attacks

Getting help as early as possible can help stop panic attacks from getting worse or spiraling into other problems. Typical treatment methods include psychotherapy, or talk therapy, as well as medications.

Those aren’t the only options anymore. Freespira is a new at-home, FDA-cleared treatment that has been shown to stop panic attacks or reduce symptoms in most users in just 28 days. It involves twice-daily guided breathing exercises using a sensor that measures your respiration and a dedicated tablet display providing real-time feedback as you adjust your breathing pattern in a way that other breathing techniques and apps don’t.

If you think Freespira could help you or someone you care about, please don’t wait. A free 15-minute consultation is all it takes to find out if Freespira is right for you.

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