Boo! Enjoying Roller Coasters and Surviving Panic Attacks This Emotional Life - PBS

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Stress and Anxiety / Blog

Dr. Paula Bloom

Dr. Paula Bloom's Bio

Dr. Bloom is a practicing psychologist, speaker, and frequent CNN contributor.

Boo! Enjoying Roller Coasters and Surviving Panic Attacks


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Last weekend as we walked around the Halloween section picking out costumes, I wondered how it is that my kids, who insist on sleeping with a night-light on, find this holiday so appealing. They can’t wait to go out into the dark night and trick-or-treat.

Why is it that we sometimes seek out things that scare us? We like the feeling of having our hearts race, the anticipation of the unknown, slow climbs and fast drops, dizziness and all the rest that goes along with, for example, thrill rides.

If you observe people getting off a rollercoaster you might hear “I am never doing that again,” “That was awesome” or “Let’s get in line again!”  What makes roller coasters exciting, rather than terrifying, is the knowledge that you wanted to get on, it is going to end quickly and that you can choose to never ride it again. Having control can be the difference between excitement and terror. With panic attacks, however, the physical experience may be very similar to a rollercoaster but far from something you’d want to experience again!

Panic attacks can occur anywhere from your car, at the shopping mall, restaurants or even at your home. You can have just one in your life or have them frequently. It is not uncommon for people to use the words “panic attack” to describe feeling anxious or worried. Panic attacks are not, in and of themselves, a mental health disorder, but rather can occur as part of an anxiety disorder. So what exactly is a panic attack?

Here are the official criteria we mental health professionals use to diagnose a panic attack:

A discrete period of intense fear or discomfort, in which 4 (or more) of the following symptoms developed abruptly and reached a peak within 10 minutes:

  1. palpitations, pounding heart or accelerated heart rate
  2. sweating
  3. trembling or shaking
  4. sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
  5. feeling of choking
  6. chest pain or discomfort
  7. nausea
  8. feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint
  9. feeling detached from yourself or that things are unreal
  10. fear of losing control or going crazy
  11. fear of dying
  12. numbness or tingling
  13. chills or hot flashes



Panic attacks can be one of the most terrifying experiences, especially when you have no idea what is going on. Thousands of people go to the ER every year thinking they are having a heart attack when actually it is a panic attack. It is important if you do have the symptoms that you get checked out by a doctor because there can be such overlap between the symptoms of heart problems and those of panic.

While panic attacks are very uncomfortable and distressing it is often what comes afterwards that creates more problems. Sometimes, people will begin to worry about having another attack and begin to avoid certain places or situations where they might get embarrassed or have a hard time leaving if they have a panic attack. It may begin with a decision to not attend a party, then maybe not go out at all on weekends, and then even stop going to work. At its most incapacitating, people can stop leaving their homes all together, sometimes for many years. The sooner you get treatment for panic attacks, the better, since you will have less time to develop these patterns of avoidance and worry.

Some things you can do include:

Learning about panic: Sometimes the more you know the less scary and out of control you can feel.

Relaxation strategies:
Meditation, yoga, visualization can all be helpful in calming the mind and body.

Deep breathing: With panic attacks the breath becomes rapid and shallow. Observing our breath and slowing it down can be very helpful.

Avoid caffeine:
Stimulants can rev you up, making you more susceptible to or worsen existing anxiety.


This Halloween, I’ll be trick-or-treating with a 7-year-old skeleton and 5-year-old superhero. If after all that candy they actually go to sleep, I wonder if we can try to turn the night light off. Yeah right, who am I kidding?