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What is a panic attack?

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Your heart runs wild, you get a dry throat, sweaty hands and you feel sick and light in the head. Everything suddenly seems very unreal and you get scared. A panic attack is a fast-rising, strong feeling of fear and anxiety that just seems to grab you out of nowhere. You are afraid to lose control, to go mad or maybe even to die. Panic attacks are very intense and very frightening. So frightening that you develop a strong fear of that feeling of fear itself you experience during a panic attack.

Many people have experienced a panic attack. We speak of a panic disorder if the fear of panic attacks controls your life. If that fear of panic results in the avoidance of places (often busy locations such as supermarkets or public transport) or situations (driving), it is called a panic disorder with agoraphobia.

Rapid thought patterns

When you get a panic attack everything seems very unreal. You think that something bad will happen, that you will go crazy, that you pass out or that you will get a heart attack. That fear reinforces the physical feelings again, so you end up in a circle of anxiety (physical feelings → anxious thoughts such as ‘I faint’ → anxiety → physical reactions … ..). You get more and more afraid.

This is called the loop of fear, or the loop of anxiety.

The thoughts you get can be very extreme and exaggerated, making everything worse. Examples of thoughts you could experience are:

  • I’m going to faint.
  • I’m having a heart attack.
  • I’m going crazy.
  • I don’t have control anymore.

All of these thoughts are very understandable, but highly unlikely to ever happen. Usually, the attack passes without any serious consequences.

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