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Welcome back, everybody. Today, we are talking about a question I get asked very commonly: Are panic attacks dangerous?
Now I get this question a lot from clients who are just starting treatment. However, I will say I do get this question a lot on social media. People like doing the last-minute panic DM. What’s happened usually is they’ve experienced a panic attack or an anxiety attack, and then they have the thought, what if this panic attack is dangerous? What if this panic attack creates some illness in my body or is unhealthy for my body or unhealthy for my baby, if they’re pregnant. And so, from there, now they’re having anxiety about their anxiety and, as you guys know, then anxiety just takes off from there. So, I wanted to address this with you first. I’ve got a series of questions that I want to go through here with you. I will be looking a little bit at my notes because I wanted to make sure I got everything today.
Before we do that, let’s first do the “I did a hard thing” segment. This is a segment where you guys write into me and tell me the hard things that you’ve been doing – facing your fears, staring your fear in the face, or maybe it’s something not related to fear. It’s just something that you’ve been going through. So, go ahead and submit those to me anytime you would like. Let’s go over. This one is amazing. It says:
“Honestly, Kimberley, you have changed my life in the last two weeks. I was in such a low place and coming across your podcast gave me so much power. I even faced my fear of heights last weekend and I went bungee jumping.” Love it. “That was frightening. And as I was falling, I screamed F-U-C-K,” but they said it in real life, excuse the language. “And I just thought, if I can do this, which is honestly terrifying, I can stop my mental rituals that are just so hard and scary.”
This message is so good and it’s exactly the epitome of the work that we do and you do, which is when we face our fear, we realize how strong we actually are. And then we go on to face our fears again, which helps us to feel even more strong and courageous, which makes us do even harder things. And from there, our life turns away from getting smaller and smaller to getting bigger and bigger. So, I love this.
All right, let’s get to the show. So, we really want to pull apart, are panic attacks dangerous? But what’s interesting about this is, often when we talk about panic attacks, people start to talk about what’s called an anxiety attack. So, let’s first just pause and really talk about what is what. So, what is the difference between a panic attack and an anxiety attack? Let’s just go through that first so that we all know we’re talking about the same thing.
A panic attack or panic disorder is a disorder that is in the DSM, which is the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. That’s what we use to diagnose people. It usually involves a sudden onset of panic. It can last for minutes, sometimes longer than that or hours. For some people who are really struggling, it usually involves shaking or trembling or it may be heat flashing, hot flashes through your body. Some people experience a sense of detachment from their body. They may experience dizziness, sweating, heart pounding, maybe depersonalization and derealization, which we have episodes on if you want to go back and listen, trembling, sweating, weakness, feeling of extreme terror. Some people have numbness in their hands and feet, again, which is why they then question, is this dangerous? You can imagine, if you’re having any of these symptoms, it’s terrifying. It’s terrifying. But once we really get educated about what that is, then we can actually work with it.
Now, as I said, when it comes to having panic disorder, you need to have had at least one of those panic attacks. And then that’s usually followed by one month or more of the person then fearing having another panic attack. And that can actually lead to some people having panic disorder with agoraphobia. Some have it with agoraphobia, which is where you feel like you can’t leave the house, and some do not.
So then the other part of this question is, what about an anxiety attack? Now, here’s the thing to remember. I asked quite a few clinicians, what do you think the difference between these is? And I actually got a ton of different answers, which I know isn’t super helpful for you guys, but some just basically said, “I don’t consider them any different at all.” Others said, yes, there is a difference in that an anxiety attack isn’t usually a disorder of its own, and it’s usually in relation to an actual threat. So, let’s say, panic disorder is very sudden, it’s often irrational, but not always. And so, it’s coming on very strong out of nowhere. However, an anxiety attack often gradually builds. It can last for several months. It can cause restlessness, sleep issues, fatigue, muscle, tension, and irritability. That though can all show up with panic disorder as well, but the main key thing that a lot of clinicians, and I’ve done some research online, is some people believe that it’s about what the trigger is. So, with an anxiety attack, if the trigger is an actual threat, like there is a dog running towards you and it’s going to bite you, or there is an actual threat in your society, a gun or weather issues, extreme weather, that that would be a trigger that would cause an anxiety attack and that’s how you would separate them.
Now, for the sake of today, I’m going to use them interchangeably. Whether it’s from a current stressor in your life that is actually a danger or whether it’s panic disorder in that it’s just sudden and out of the blue or related to a specific fear or phobia you have, I’m going to talk about them as if they’re the same, given that their symptoms are often the same. And really, what I want to look at today is about whether these symptoms are dangerous or not.
Before we move on, let me quickly give you a little prevalence here, because I just wanted to normalize if you’re having panic, and I’m going to read directly here. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that approximately 2.7% of the adult population in the United States experience panic disorder each year. That’s pretty big. They went on to say, approximately 44.8% of those individuals experience a panic disorder that is classified as severe.
Now, I think that’s actually really interesting because anyone who’s had a panic attack is going to say it’s severe because a panic attack is 10 out of 10. So, I think that that’s actually-- I’m surprised. I would be surprised if it’s actually not way more than that. But what I’m guessing they’re also talking about here is the degree in which it impacts their functioning. Because a panic attack in and of itself, and we’ll talk about this here in a second, isn’t a problem. What can get in the way is it starts to make your life very, very small and can impact your functioning, your ability to have conversations, interact with people, go to work, go to school, sleep, eat, and so forth. So, really important that you get those points.
But then we want to move over to: Are these anxiety and panic attacks dangerous? So, let’s talk about that. Let’s look at those symptoms – chest pain, hot flashes, dizziness, pounding heart. Often when we experience those symptoms, we would make the assumption that something is terribly wrong with our body and we better get to the hospital pretty quick. Chest pain – what do you see often on advertisements and so forth?
You can imagine, when you have those sensations, it makes complete sense that your brain is going to set off the alarm. I do encourage you all, if you’ve had these symptoms, go and see a doctor, explain to them what happened and have them do a check on you so that you are really clear that what you’re experiencing is a panic disorder or a panic attack or an anxiety attack. We all know the common TV show where they get rushed to the hospital and they’re having a heart attack. And then the doctor, in a comedic way, says, “You’re having a panic attack. It’s common.” It is true. Statistics show it. I think this is correct that the most admissions into an ER is panic attacks. Isn’t that so fascinating? So, it makes sense that people are afraid.
But once you’ve had that clearance and I do encourage you to get clearance and just speak with your doctor always about that stuff, and if they’ve defined like you’re having a panic attack, then your job is actually, when you have those sensations, to not respond to them as if they are threats. If you respond to them as if they’re threats, you’re going to create more panic. We’ve got a whole ton of other episodes out about panic, so I’m not going to talk about too much there. But what I want to talk about is, are they dangerous? And the same goes for anxiety attacks.
What I’m going to tell you once and once only is, no, they’re not dangerous. Our body can withstand all of these symptoms many, many times. Lots of people who’ve been through very difficult times or had panic disorder can go on to live wonderful, healthy lives. But here is where I want to maybe address the elephant in the room. If you don’t follow me already, there is a chance you found this podcast because you saw the title and you were like, “Oh yes, I want to know if they’re dangerous.” And once you listen, you may actually feel compelled to come back and listen to this episode again and again to reassure yourself that they’re not. If that is the case, I’m going to strongly encourage you not to keep listening after you’ve listened to the first time.
Let me give you some information about that. When I see a patient for the first time, I do a lot of psychoeducation. I share with them, these are common sensations, this is normal if you’ve got panic. If you have these sensations, we’re going to treat them like we would treat panic symptoms. I would educate them if they’re concerned about the dangerousness. But then I would say to them, after today, we’re actually not going to keep revisiting these questions because what will happen is, the more you tend to these questions, the more you actually be fueling your panic disorder. Anytime you respond in a way that’s urgent and need to reduce your anxiety or your uncertainty, the chances are, you’re making the anxiety worse. So, I want to give you permission to go and see your doctor. I want you to get permission to share all of the details that you’re experiencing. Then I want you to give yourself permission to have your panic attacks without trying to solve whether they’re dangerous or not. Not tending to all of this, because the truth is, number one, nobody knows, number two, even I don’t know for certain, for every different person, and number three, the more you try and solve it, the more that you’re putting too much attention on this question that can actually keep you stuck in the cycle.
Once we look at that, and that’s probably as far as I would go with my patients as well in terms of addressing that, often people have questions like, well, then what’s the impact of anxiety on my body? How does anxiety affect my body? How does panic impact my body? And again, I want to tread very gently because you deserve to have some psychoeducation about that, but we also want to be careful that we don’t spend too much time, again, tending to fears about what anxiety is doing to our body. Remember here, a lot of anxiety disorders is ultimately the fear of fear itself. Even though the content might be on something specific, it’s usually our resistance to having fear and experiencing fear and doing so without response or reaction.
So, does it impact the body? Yes and no. Meaning it does tend to make us increase sleep struggles. It makes it difficult to eat. There are many impacts that it can have on the body. But again, catch – the question, how does it impact my body – if that’s actually you saying, is this dangerous?
Think of it this way. When we ask questions and we pose questions to our mind, the words we choose and the emphasis we ask them can actually create more anxiety. If we say, “That’s so dangerous, we shouldn’t be doing that,” it’s true of anything. When you label anything as good and bad, you actually increase your resistance and your wrestle with it. If you say something is bad, you’re going to have anxiety about it next time.
And so, what we want to look at here is, yes, it does impact our body in terms of it’s exhausting and it creates struggles without regular functioning. So then what I would encourage you to do, instead of tending to back and forward on, is this anxiety good or bad for my body, what does it do to my body, does this anxiety impact my body in a healthy way – instead, put your attention on, what will help me overcome this anxiety in the long term? Anytime we ask for the short term, we’re always going to do something that’s a safety behavior or a compulsion, an avoidant behavior, a reassurance-seeking behavior. So, just keep asking yourself, what will help me in the long term overcome this fear? And often that involves not ruminating about whether it will be dangerous or not because when we ruminate, we get stuck. And when we get stuck, it makes the fears look bigger.
Isn’t it interesting, and I’m going to call myself out here, in that in my attempt to address the question, are panic attacks dangerous, my advice or my encouragement to you is to practice not trying to solve that question, i not giving attention to that question. Yes, you can get basic psychoeducation or you can go to your doctor and get a checkup, but anything beyond there, you’re always, and hear me if you can, if you can take one thing away from today’s episode, is really remember that anxiety is about willingness to tolerate discomfort and it’s about your willingness to be uncertain, especially if you have disorders like panic disorder, OCD, phobia, social anxiety, generalized anxiety. It’s almost always going to be, can I be uncertain? How can I be more uncertain? How can I practice riding the waves of uncertainty? And that’s very much the case with this specific question.
So, I hope that is helpful. Again, catch your urgency to listen to this over and over and do your best to acknowledge the thought that you’re having, treat it like a thought and not a fact, and then move on into the things that actually bring you value into your life because that is what recovery looks like.
Thank you so much for being here with me today. I am honored to have this special time with you. I hope that was helpful. Do please remember, it is a beautiful day to do hard things because this work is hard, but it is done in effort to really serve and nurture the future you. Even though it’s hard right now, we’re really tending to the wellness of the future you when we take on these really difficult concepts
Have a wonderful day, everybody, and I will see you next week.