Did I have panic attacks?

By Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker

hi, I’m 16 and i’ve had some problems with panic attacks, or at least, feelings of panic that i experienced on vacation three months ago. the actual feelings of panic or fear lasted about a month, and i think i experienced recurrent panic attacks; i had the same feelings like 10 times within a few weeks, and i’ve never felt this way before. The first time was horrible; it lasted like two hours and my hands were sweating, I couldn’t move, I was scared to death, and this all happened at a family’s house on vacation overseas. i literally thought i was going to die, or something horrible would happen. well, not really, but extremely frightened.. it was freaky. it was completely out of the blue. when i left the house i was crying a lot, and my mom thought it was hormonal. it could be, because ever since we left from vacation, it stopped. I’ve never had any other problems, emotional, mental, or physical, at least not to my knowledge.
also, when we came back, there was a lingering sense of that dread, but no real feelings of panic that i felt before, and i was really preoccupied with my thoughts; i seriously thought i was going crazy! i was reading all this stuff about schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, but I knew that I was just frightened for no reason. i also got scared and thought i had ‘racing thoughts’ except i read more about it and i think i was just really preoccupied. it seemed to me that i experienced various OCD-like symptoms, panic symptoms, and depressive symptoms. The past year I changed schools, and I didn’t like it, and I think I might have been mildly depressed or something. however I checked dysthymia and all that, but none of it really matched; I didn’t really have trouble sleeping, eating, etc. I only felt weird for quite some time, which again, I am not sure if it was hormonal or a big deal. Currently, and for the past two months, I’ve been feeling better and better every day. Maybe I experienced depression, but I never had problems with anxiety, which is why those attacks were so alarming.

I want to know some things. First, I read somewhere (and I know that all this info may not be validated) that panic attacks can only start with a ‘negative thought.’ I’m kind of confused about that, can you please elaborate how that exactly happens so I can maybe eliminate this. Also, is it possible to have a cluster of these ‘panic symptoms’ and not actually have a disorder? I’ve been feeling fine, and I’m not sure if those attacks were isolated; since they only really happened on vacation, jet lag, hormonal stuff, and maybe being depressed could’ve caused all this. I really want to know what these feelings of fear were about and what could have caused them, and how i can get rid of them? thanks

A: Panic attacks are just that – “attacks”. Sometimes it’s possible to isolate a cause. Often it’s not. In your case, it would be reasonable to consider that it was a build up of stress plus being in an unfamiliar place plus jet lag plus maybe even hormones. All that added up to being more than you could cope with. Yes, a panic attack feels like you’re going crazy. You’re not. Your system is in “fight or flight” mode. It feels terrible at the time but it does pass.

I think you’ve made a good analysis and that you have already pretty much gotten rid of the aftershocks. Many people have only one episode like this in their entire lives. Other people get them now and then. The trouble with reading so much about possible diagnoses is that they are all part of being human. We all can reoognize some bit of ourselves in almost every diagnosis. Ithink you have enough information for now and you should do yourself a favor and focus on other things — like generally taking good care of yourself. Eat right. Get enough sleep and exercise. Learn some ways to manage stress like deep breathing or meditating. If by some chance you ever have another panic attack, you’ll be better prepared to deal with it.
I wish you well.
Dr. Marie

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 2 Nov 2008

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, D. (2008). Did I have panic attacks?. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 27, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2008/11/02/possible-panic-attacks/