What is a Panic Attack?

Panic Attack DefinitionPanic attacks are a sudden surge of overwhelming anxiety and fear. Your heart pounds and you find it difficult to breathe, you may even feel like you are dying or going crazy. They strike without warning and there is no clear reason for the attack. They may occur while you are relaxed or asleep. With proper treatment you can reduce and eliminate the symptoms and you can regain control of your life.

Panic attacks are symptoms of anxiety disorders and these attacks are serious health problems. Panic attack symptoms are quite different from other anxiety symptoms and they are sudden and unexpected. A survey report shows that 20% of adult Americans suffer from these symptoms and women are more prone to panic attacks than men. The average peak age at which a panic attack starts is 15-19 years.



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Panic Disorder

When someone has a panic attack, while shopping in a store, or while driving, or while walking down the street, they develop fears, that is called phobias, specifically about these situations and they will begin to avoid these situations. Eventually, the avoidance and the level of their anxiety about another attack reach the point where just the thought of doing that activity triggers panic attacks, and this idea makes the individual unable to drive, go out of his house, or whatever. The person is then said to suffer from a panic disorder accompanied with agoraphobia. Panic attacks can have serious effects on the person’s life, if he/she does not receive proper treatment.


Signs and Symptoms

The symptoms of a panic attack usually appear suddenly and there is no apparent cause. They may include:

  • Pounding or racing heartbeat
  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty in breathing
  • Dizziness, nausea
  • Hot flashes or chills
  • Stomach upset
  • Trembling
  • Tingling or numbness in hand
  • Terror
  • Fear of dying
  • A need to escape
  • Dreamlike sensations
  • Nervousness

The panic attack symptoms are similar to that of the symptoms of a heart attack. Panic attacks usually last for nearly 10 minutes and most of the people who have suffered from one attack will suffer from others. When a person has repeated attacks without any physical reasons or emotional cause, or when they feels anxious about suffering from another attack, then the person is said to be suffering from panic disorder. Panic attacks are also a symptom for other emotional problems like PTSD, schizophrenia, or intoxication from drugs.

Certain medical conditions such as thyroid abnormalities and anemia, and medications can cause intense anxiety.


Panic attacks that occur while sleeping are called the nocturnal panic attacks and they are less frequent than panic attacks that occur during daytime. People suffering from nocturnal panic attacks have more respiratory problems, and they tend to suffer more from symptoms of depression than those who suffer from daytime panic attacks.


Panic attacks in adolescents have the same symptoms as in adults; teenagers feel more unreal, or feel more frightened of becoming crazy or of dying. They may cause a decline in grades, separation from parents, depression, and even suicidal thoughts.

Women suffering from panic attacks avoid anxiety provoking situations and their frequency of panic attacks may increase or decrease during pregnancy.


Causes for Panic Attacks

There are no specific causes for panic attacks and they are the result of a combination of biological vulnerabilities, ways of thinking and social stressors. The body’s normal alarm system that allows a person to respond to a threat is triggered unnecessarily, when there is no danger, and this causes a panic attack. Some people are more susceptible to this problem than others and genetics play a major role in determining who will get it. Many people who have no family history can also develop this disorder. A deficiency in zinc or magnesium may also increase the risk for causing panic attacks.



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Panic attacks are treatable conditions and they can be successfully treated with a series of therapy sessions or self-help strategies. Cognitive behavioral therapy is the most effective from of treatment and exposure therapy also helps to treat panic attacks.

Medication can give temporary relief or control over the symptoms but it does not treat or resolve the problem.



If panic attacks are left untreated, they tend to occur repeatedly for months or years. Continued panic attacks may result in complications like other mental illnesses that include phobias, depression, suicidal thoughts, alcohol or other substance abuse, work or school problems, and avoidance of social situations. If they are left untreated, they affect the person’s life seriously, and many people have problems with friends, family and work. Panic attacks cannot be cured without treatments that are specifically designed to help people suffering from them.


Lifestyle changes such as aerobic exercise, stress management techniques, and avoiding alcohol, caffeine, and illicit drugs can help decrease panic attacks in people. Learning about panic attack, practicing relaxation techniques and learning to control your breathing can help you to control panic attacks.


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