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Panic Attack Warning Signs—and How to Deal

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Emma Stone seems like the epitome of effortless cool (who wouldn't want to be her BFF?), so it was shocking to learn in a recent Wall Street Journal Magazine profile that she has a history of suffering from panic attacks. Considering the fact that, each year, six million Americans experience panic disorder—and women are twice as likely to be affected as men, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America—perhaps it shouldn't be so surprising. What's more, Stone happens to be in good company when it comes to young, successful women who've fessed up to experiencing panic—Amanda Seyfried, Lena Dunham, and Ellie Goulding have all been there too.

A panic attack takes typical feelings of stress and anxiety to the next level. "During a panic attack, the body goes into fight or flight mode and prepares itself to fight or flee," says Melissa Horowitz, Director of Clinical Training at the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy. "But the reality is that there's no true danger. It's the somatic sensations and our interpretation of them that lead to a worsening of symptoms."

Those somatic sensations include a laundry list of symptoms from nausea, tightening in the chest, racing heart, shortness of breath, and a choking sensation to shakiness, trembling, tingling, dizziness, sweating, and more. "During a panic attack, there's a sudden onset of fear that's intense and brief, lasting less than 10 minutes," Horowitz says. "These sensations can feel like you're having a heart attack, losing control, or even dying." The fear and uncertainty around what's happening can make you feel even worse, acting like fuel on your anxiety-filled fire. (Learn to conquer more of the Anxiety-Reducing Solutions for Common Worry Traps.)

Horowitz also points out that there's a distinction between a panic attack and panic disorder. “The symptoms are the same, but the difference is that with panic disorder, the symptoms reoccur and can create worry or avoidance,” she says. "A panic attack can be a one-off or infrequent occurrence."

Either way, if you've experienced a panic attack, make an appointment with your doctor. "You wouldn't want to shrug off a serious medical condition, such as a heart problem, as panic," Horowitz says. And if you're experiencing attacks frequently, you'll want to seek treatment, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, because symptoms could compromise your day-to-day life. (Try one of these innovative Types of Therapy that Go Beyond a Couch Session.)

While the symptoms of panic attacks are well-known, the causes are less so. "There may be a genetic or biological predisposition,” Horowitz says. A major life event or a series of life transitions that occur during a short amount of time could lay the groundwork for experiencing a panic attack too.

"There may also be some things that act as triggers for people who experience panic," she adds. Riding public transportation, being in an enclosed space, or taking an exam can all be triggers. Certain medical conditions could boost your risk too: People with asthma are 4.5 times more likely to experience panic attacks than those without the respiratory illness, according to a study in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine. One theory: Symptoms of asthma, such as hyperventilation, can cause fear and anxiety, which can set off a panic attack.

If you experience panic, there are things you can do to help yourself recover more quickly (and none require breathing into a paper bag). While you should always see a doc—and take panic attacks seriously—if you have one, these tips can help you in the heat of the moment.

1. Change your environment. It could be as simple as closing your office door, sitting in a bathroom stall, or stepping into a quiet spot in Starbucks. While in the throes of a panic attack, it can be very hard to slow down. Momentarily finding a place that's quieter—and has fewer distractors—can make a big difference in stopping the cycle of panic that you feel, Horowitz says. "Sit down, close your eyes, and take slow, deep breaths in and out."

2. Use self-talk. Either out loud or in your mind, talk yourself through what you're experiencing. For example, you could say, "My heart is beating rapidly, it feels as though it's getting faster than it was five minutes ago." "Being able to expose yourself to what feels so dangerous or threatening helps you remember that they're only sensations and although they’re uncomfortable in the moment, they are not dangerous and won’t last forever,” Horowitz says.," Horowitz says.

3. Get ahead of yourself. With your eyes closed, picture yourself being able to cope. "Imagine yourself in a place where you're no longer experiencing those symptoms and getting back to your every day life," Horowitz says. This helps your brain believe that it's possible, which can help put an end to your panic more quickly. (Try practicing one of these 3 Breathing Techniques for Dealing with Anxiety, Stress, and Low Energy.)

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