Panic Attacks 101

Hello everyone!

I hope all y’all are hanging in there for Week 10. Around this time last quarter, while fretting about my final papers and graduate school applications, I had an experience that I never expected. While walking back to my apartment at 1 in the morning, I was halfway up the stairs when I suddenly couldn’t breathe. I felt dizzy, like I was about to black out. My heart was pounding rapidly, and I started sweating despite the cold air. I sat down on the steps, and tried to collect my thoughts. Finally, I realized that I was having a panic attack.

I first learned about panic attacks right before fall quarter last year. In my positions as a CAPS Peer Educator and as a Resident Assistant, I was required to participate in Mental Health First Aid training. In the training session, I received a really cool book, Mental Health First Aid USA, that gives instructions and advice for identifying and assisting people that are having mental health crises. All of my statistics and advice in this article come directly from that book and my own experience!

Although some people do have anxiety or panic disorders that cause them to experience panic attacks, it is actually fairly common for other people to have panic attacks, especially in high-stress environments. In fact, more than one in five people experience at least one panic attack in their lifetime.

So what exactly is a panic attack?

A panic attack is a distinct episode of high anxiety with fear or discomfort. The attack develops abruptly and has its peak within ten minutes.

What are the symptoms of a panic attack?

As I mentioned earlier, the sensations include dizziness, lightheadedness, shortness of breath, and rapid heart rate. Some people also experience trembling, nausea, feelings of unreality, fears of losing control, fear of dying, numbness or tingling, and chills or hot flashes. Many people mistake the symptoms of a panic attack for the symptoms of a heart attack. Of course, if you believe that you or your friend is having a heart attack, it is extremely important to call 911 for emergency services. However, panic attacks pass naturally on their own and generally do not require medical assistance.

What should you do if you are having a panic attack?

Try to remain calm – from personal experience, I was able to calm myself very quickly once I recognized my symptoms and realized that I was having a panic attack. If you feel that you need additional support but do not want to call 911, a great resource for you to call is the CAPS main office number at 831-459-2628. Even if you call after-hours or during a holiday, this number will connect you to 24 hour crisis services. The person you talk to will be able to give you support and help talk you through your panic attack.

What should you do if your friend is having a panic attack? Be calm, reassuring, and be patient. Do not make assumptions about what they need and try to ask them directly what they what. Additionally, try to be empathetic and do not minimize your friend’s experience. For that person, the terror is very real – reassure them that while their panic attack is frightening, it’s not dangerous and the sensations will soon pass. As mentioned previously, if you need additional support, try calling 831-459-2628 for crisis services.

To wrap things up… I know for a fact that panic attacks are incredibly terrifying and debilitating. However, by recognizing my symptoms, I was able to curtail the panic attack before it got worse so that I could take care of myself. I think that being a CAPS peer educator has definitely helped me in facing my own mental health crises, and I hope that by sharing my own experience you feel more confident in your ability to cope with a panic attack. Remember, you are never alone here at UCSC, and you can always contact CAPS if you have any questions or need assistance. Good luck Slugs!