The Truth About Panic Attacks

by Jason Naughton

We have all been there before: the all-night study session for the midterm exam, the crunch to finish off that final paper, the extended naps in the library ending with a polite but firm nudge by the janitorial staff reminding us that, “the library is now closed.” Such is the struggle of the undergraduate biomedical student; stress, it seems, has become second nature. It’s nearly impossible to sit through a lecture without eavesdropping complaints about the course load, professors, or lab hours. “I’m, like, having a panic attack,” we hear over the drone of the classroom whispers.

The truisms of panic attacks and panic disorders have been blurred through cultural norm. The term “panic attack” has morphed to encompass ordinary stressors, like an unexpected quiz at the beginning of class, or losing your car keys, or struggling to make it to work on time from your afternoon meeting. However, the difference between a nervous situation and a clinical panic attack is not a matter of mental taxation or stress, but of a severe 14 and painful physiological reaction.

Many of those who experience their first panic attack often mistake them for a heart attack, and - in truth - the symptoms are nearly identical: rapid and fluttering heart rate, chest pain, numbness in the left arm, sweating, stomach upset or dizziness, shortness of breath, tremors, and twitches. There are a few distinctions: the chest pain of a heart attack radiates from the center, in a crushing sensation, which usually last longer than 10 minutes, while the chest pain associated with a panic attack is sharp and usually localized over the heart. Likewise, while a panic attack may cause nausea, vomiting is only common during a heart attack.

Perhaps the most important distinction between panic attacks and heart attacks is the cause: heart attacks are a result of coronary circulation failing—busted or clogged pipes around the heart, if you will—while panic attacks are entirely mental. During a panic attack, your body is thrust into its “fight-or-flight” response and naturally dials up the adrenaline. In fact, many doctors have compared this spike in adrenaline and heart rate to that of cardiovascular exercise.

The obvious good news is that, unlike heart attacks, panic attacks are not fatal. In fact, although panic attacks can be painful and debilitating, they are also quite treatable. Sometimes it is not as simple as breathing into a plastic bag or counting to ten. Likewise, the cause is not always readily apparent. Sure, most of those students that experience panic attacks have increased instances of panic around midterms or finals. However, there may be more underlying causes, in which case patients could suffer at seemingly relaxing times.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, “Forty million U.S. adults suffer from an anxiety disorder, and 75 percent of them experience their first episode of anxiety by age 22.” The ADAA also notes that a 2008 Associated Press and mtvU survey of college students found that 80 percent of participants said they frequently experience daily stress.

Only a third of those suffering seek treatment, even though a majority of conditions are perfectly treatable. Luckily, the University of Pittsburgh offers a number of options for students who suffer from panic attacks or general anxiety disorders. The Counseling Center offers free counseling services by psychologists, counselors, social workers, and psychiatrists for conditions including depression and anxiety.

Everyone’s body reacts to stress differently. Having a panic attack is not indicative of any fault or weakness, nor is it necessarily an indication of an abnormal amount of stress or taxation. Panic attacks may have many underlying causes—some severe, some otherwise innocuous—but it is vital that students identify stressors early on and seek help to prevent long- term anxiety and panic-related issues.