A panic attack is a feeling of sudden surge of overwhelming anxiety and fear. The heart pounds, one can’t breathe and may even feel like one is dying or going crazy.
A person may experience one or more panic attacks, yet be otherwise perfectly happy and healthy. Recurrent panic attacks are often triggered by a specific situation, such as crossing a bridge, being in a tight or rowdy space, or speaking in public; especially if such situation has caused a panic attack before. Usually, a panic-inducing situation makes one feel endangered and unable to escape, triggering the body’s fight-or-flight response.
Although panic attacks aren't life-threatening, they can be frightening and extremely unpleasant, thereby, making many people who experience repeated panic attacks become very worried about having another attack and may cause them to make some lifestyle changes such as avoiding exercise so as to keep the heart rate low, or avoiding certain places.
People who have had one panic attack are at greater risk for having subsequent panic attacks than those who have never experienced a panic attack. If left untreated, panic attacks can lead to panic disorder and other problems. When panic attacks occur repeatedly, and there is worry about having more episodes, a person is considered to have a condition known as panic disorder.
People with panic disorder may be extremely anxious and fearful, since they are unable to predict when the next episode will occur.
The good news is that panic attacks can be cured and the sooner you seek help, the better. With the right treatment and self-help, you can reduce or eliminate the symptoms, regain your confidence, and take back control of your life.
Signs and Symptoms of Panic Attack
The signs and symptoms of a panic attack develop abruptly and usually reach their peak level within 10 minutes or less and then begin to subside. They rarely last more than an hour, with most ending within 20 to 30 minutes. One may feel fatigued and worn out after a panic attack subsides. Panic attacks can happen anywhere and at any time. Panic attack includes at least four of the following symptoms:
Trembling or shaking
Sense of impending doom or danger
Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
Chest pain or discomfort
Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
Nausea or abdominal distress
Feeling dizzy, unsteady, light-headed, or faint
Hot or cold flashes
Numbness or tingling sensations
Feeling unreal or detached from your surroundings
Fear of losing control or going crazy
Fear of dying
Some people experience what is referred to as limited-symptom panic attacks, which are similar to full-blown panic attacks but consist of fewer than four symptoms.
Although anxiety is often accompanied by physical symptoms, such as a racing heart or knots in your stomach, what differentiates a panic attack from other anxiety symptoms is the intensity and duration of the symptoms.
While panic attacks are a defining characteristic of panic disorder, it is not uncommon for individuals to experience panic attacks in the context of other psychological disorders. For example, someone with social anxiety disorder might have a panic attack before giving a talk at a conference and someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder might have a panic attack when prevented from engaging in a ritual or compulsion.
What Causes Panic Attacks?
It's not known what causes panic attacks, but these factors may play a role:
Temperament that is more sensitive to stress or prone to negative emotions
Certain changes in the way parts of your brain function
Panic attacks may come on suddenly and without warning at first, but over time, they're usually triggered by certain situations.
Panic attacks often start in the late teens or early adulthood and affect more women than men.
Factors that may increase the risk of developing panic attacks include:
Family history of panic attacks
Major life stress, such as the death or serious illness of a loved one
A traumatic event, such as sexual assault or a serious accident
Major changes in your life, such as a divorce or the addition of a baby
Smoking or excessive caffeine intake
History of childhood physical or sexual abuse
A primary healthcare provider will determine if one has panic attacks, panic disorder or another condition, such as heart or thyroid problems, with symptoms that resemble panic attacks.
To help pinpoint a diagnosis, one may have:
A complete physical exam
Blood tests to check one’s thyroid and other possible conditions and tests on one’s heart, such as an electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG)
A psychological evaluation to talk about one’s symptoms, fears or concerns, stressful situations, relationship problems, situations one may be avoiding, and family history
One may fill out a psychological self-assessment or questionnaire. Also, one may be asked about alcohol or other substance use.
Treatment can help reduce the intensity and frequency of one’s panic attacks and improve one’s function in daily life.
The main treatment options are psychotherapy and medications. One or both types of treatment may be recommended, depending on the sufferer’s preference, his/her history, severity of the sufferer’s panic attacks and whether the sufferer has access to therapists who have special training in treating panic cases.
Left untreated, panic attacks lead to panic disorder which can affect almost every area of one’s life. The sufferer may be so afraid of having more panic attacks that he/she lives in a constant state of fear, ruining his/her quality of life.
Complications that panic attacks may cause or be linked to include:
Development of specific phobias, such as fear of driving or leaving your home
Avoidance of social situations
Problems at work or school
Frequent medical care for health concerns and other medical conditions
Depression, anxiety disorders and other psychiatric disorders
Alcohol or other substance misuse
Increased risk of suicide or suicidal thoughts
Lifestyle and home remedies
Avoid smoking, alcohol, caffeine and recreational drugs. All of these can trigger or worsen panic attacks.
Learn how to control your breathing. By learning to control your breathing, you can calm yourself down when you begin to feel anxious. And if you know how to control your breathing, you’re also less likely to create the very sensations that you’re afraid of.
Practice relaxation techniques. When practiced regularly, activities such as yoga, meditation, and progressive muscle relaxation strengthen the body’s relaxation response.
Connect face-to-face with family and friends. Symptoms of anxiety can become worse when you feel isolated, so reach out to people who care about you on a regular basis.
Join a support group. Joining a group for people with panic attacks can connect one with others facing the same problems.
Exercise regularly. Exercise is a natural anxiety reliever so try to get moving for at least 30 minutes on most days (three 10-minute sessions is just as good). Rhythmic aerobic exercise that requires moving both your arms and legs, like walking, running, swimming, or dancing can be of great help.
Practice stress management and relaxation techniques. For example, yoga, deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation also may be helpful.
Get enough restful sleep. Insufficient or poor quality sleep can make anxiety worse, so try to get seven to nine hours of restful sleep a night.
How to help people having a panic attack
No matter how irrational you think their panicked response to a situation is, it’s important to remember that the danger seems very real to sufferers. Simply telling them to calm down or minimizing their fear won’t help.
Stay calm yourself. Being calm, understanding, and non-judgmental will help a sufferer’s panic subside quicker.
Focus the sufferer on their breathing. Find a quiet place for them to sit and then guide them to take slow, deep breaths for a few minutes.
Do something physical. Together, raise and lower your arms or stamp your feet. It can help to burn off some of their stress.
Get them out of their own head by asking them to name five things around them or talking soothingly about a shared interest.
Encourage the sufferer to seek help. Once the panic attack is over, they may feel embarrassed about having an attack in front of you. Reassure them and encourage them to seek help with a specialized medical practitioner.
There's no sure way to prevent panic attacks. However, these recommendations may help.
Get treatment as soon as possible to help stop panic attacks from getting worse or becoming more frequent.
Stick with your treatment plan to help prevent relapses or worsening of panic attack symptoms.
Get regular physical activity, which may play a role in protecting against anxiety.
What is Panic Disorder?
If you're having lots of panic attacks at unpredictable times and there doesn't seem to be a particular trigger or cause, you might be given a diagnosis of panic disorder.
Simply knowing more about panic can go a long way towards relieving your distress.