A panic attack is a sudden feeling of overwhelming fear and anxiety that strikes without warning. People who have had a panic attack report feeling like they are having a heart attack or that they are dying or losing their mind. The terror and sense of impending doom that they experience during a panic attack are not related to what is happening around them and often have no basis in reality. Left untreated, panic attacks can worsen and lead to panic disorder.
You will find great resources at this website on panic attack symptoms and coping techniques.
When Panic Attacks
Panic attacks can strike anywhere and at any time. They often occur when a person is away from home. People have had panic attacks while driving, sitting in a plane, working, doing their grocery shopping, having dinner with friends, exercising at the gym, and even while sleeping.
How Long It Lasts
The symptoms of a panic attack progress rapidly, reaching their peak in about 10 minutes. Most panic attacks are brief and are over within 20 to 30 minutes, though - rarely - the symptoms could last for more than an hour.
A full-blown panic attack usually includes a combination of four or more of these symptoms:
- Shortness of breath
- Racing or pounding heart, palpitations, accelerated heart rate
- Shortness of breath, hyperventilation
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Feeling faint or weak
- Dizziness or light-headedness
- Trembling or shaking
- Hot or cold flashes
- Tingling sensations in the hands and/or feet
- A choking feeling
- Abdominal distress
- A sense of terror or doom
- A feeling that one is about to die or go crazy
- A feeling of being detached from oneself
- A feeling that one is about to lose control
Panic Attack Vs. Panic Disorder
When panic attacks occur repeatedly and there is fear that an episode could occur at any time, a person may be diagnosed with panic disorder. People with panic disorder are often extremely fearful and anxious because they are unable to predict when their next panic attack will occur. Panic disorders are common. About 6 million adults in the US are currently living with this condition. The symptoms of panic disorder usually begin in adolescence or early adulthood. Women are twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with panic disorder.
Am I Having a Heart Attack?
Because many of its symptoms are physical and because these symptoms can often be severe, people experiencing a panic attack often worry that they are having a heart attack. In fact, thousands of people suffering panic attacks go to the ER every day in fear that they have a life-threatening emergency. But while any chest pain, heart palpitation, and labored breathing should be checked by a doctor, it is also important to keep in mind that panic attacks are often an overlooked cause of chest pain and that this may lead to a cardiac misdiagnosis.
Know the Causes
Though scientists have found that the tendency to experience panic attacks tends to run in families, modern medical science is yet to pinpoint the exact causes of panic attacks. However, it has been observed that major life transitions such as getting married, having children, graduating, and moving into a new home seem to trigger panic attacks. Events that are particularly stressful such as getting divorced, the death of a loved one, and losing one's job can also set off a panic attack.
In some rare cases, panic attacks can be caused by medical conditions. A person experiencing recurring panic attacks, should see a doctor to rule out the following physical causes:
- Mitral valve prolapse
- Stimulant use
- Medication withdrawal
Panic attacks and panic disorder can be treated successfully with therapy sessions, medication, and self-help strategies. Forms of therapy for panic attacks and panic disorder include cognitive behavioral therapy and exposure therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy addresses the behaviors and thinking patterns that trigger and/or sustain panic attacks. It is generally considered as the most effective treatment for panic attacks. Exposure therapy teaches patients how to cope with panic attacks by inducing a panic attack in a safe and controlled environment.
Medication can temporarily reduce or control the symptoms of a panic attack or panic disorder. Antidepressants have to be taken continuously, not only during a panic attack, while benzodiazepines or anti-anxiety drugs act rapidly and are taken during an episode. However, benzodiazepines are often highly addictive and should be used with caution.