A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause. Panic attacks can be very frightening. When panic attacks occur, you might think you're losing control, having a heart attack or even dying.
Many people have just one or two panic attacks in their lifetimes, and the problem goes away, perhaps when a stressful situation ends. But if you've had recurrent, unexpected panic attacks and spent long periods in constant fear of another attack, you may have a condition called panic disorder.
Panic attacks were once dismissed as nerves or stress, but they're now recognized as a real medical condition. Although panic attacks can significantly affect your quality of life, treatment can be very effective.
Panic attacks typically begin suddenly, without warning. They can strike at almost any time — when you're driving the car, at the mall, sound asleep or in the middle of a business meeting. Panic attacks have many variations, but symptoms usually peak within 10 minutes. You may feel fatigued and worn out after a panic attack subsides.
Panic attacks typically include a few or many of these symptoms:
- Sense of impending doom or danger
- Fear of loss of control or death
- Rapid heart rate
- Shortness of breath
- Hot flashes
- Abdominal cramping
- Chest pain
- Tightness in your throat
- Trouble swallowing
One of the worst things about panic attacks is the intense fear that you'll have another one. You may fear having a panic attack so much that you avoid situations where they may occur. You may even feel unable to leave your home (agoraphobia) because no place feels safe.
- Major stress
- Temperament that is more susceptible to stress
- Certain changes in the way parts of your brain function
Some research suggests that your body's natural fight-or-flight response to danger is involved in panic attacks. For example, if a grizzly bear came after you, your body would react instinctively. Your heart rate and breathing would speed up as your body prepared itself for a life-threatening situation. Many of the same reactions occur in a panic attack. But it's not known why a panic attack occurs when there's no obvious danger present.
Symptoms of panic disorder often start in the late teens or early adulthood and affect more women than men.
- Family history of panic attacks or panic disorder
- Significant stress
- Death or serious illness of a loved one
- Major changes in your life, such as the addition of a baby
- History of childhood physical or sexual abuse
- Experiencing a traumatic event, such as an accident or sexual assault
Left untreated, panic attacks and panic disorder can result in severe complications that affect almost every area of your life. You may be so afraid of having more panic attacks that you live in a constant state of fear, ruining your 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
- Increased risk of suicide or suicidal thoughts
- Alcohol or substance abuse
- Financial problems
Care and Treatment
There's no sure way to prevent panic attacks or panic disorder. However, these recommendations may help.
- Get treatment for panic attacks as soon as possible to help stop them 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.
When to Call the Doctor
Panic attacks are hard to manage on your own, and they may get worse without treatment. And because panic attack symptoms can also resemble other serious health problems, such as a heart attack, it's important to get evaluated by your health care provider if you aren't sure what's causing your symptoms.