Anxiety & Stress

4 Min Read

What is a Panic Attack?

A panic attack is a brief period of intense fear or anxiety. Panic attacks occur suddenly, and extreme feelings of irrational fear can arise even if you’ve been feeling calm otherwise. Panic attacks are often associated with both psychological and physical symptoms, including shortness of breath, racing heart, and chest pain.

It’s normal to feel stress and discomfort at times, especially if you’re dealing with stressful life events or significant life transitions. However, if your feelings of panic are intense, overwhelming, and disrupting your daily life, you may be experiencing panic attacks.

Panic attacks are sometimes an indication of a broader mental health condition called panic disorder. However, panic attacks can also occur on their own or as part of other mental health conditions, such as agoraphobia or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

panic attack

Symptoms of Panic Attacks

The severity and symptoms of panic attacks vary depending on the individual but generally include both psychological and physical symptoms. According to the American Psychological Association, the most common symptom of a panic attack include:

  • Intense fear about death or a feeling of real danger or impending doom, even when there is no objective imminent danger
  • Sensations of losing control of thoughts or emotions
  • Feelings of detachment from yourself or reality
  • Shortness of breath, hyperventilation, or difficulty breathing
  • Dizziness and lightheadedness
  • Chest pain, rapid heart rate, racing heartbeat, or heart palpitations
  • Shaking, numbness, or tingling sensations
  • Chills, hot flashes, or sweating
  • Nausea

Individuals who suffer from severe cases of panic attacks often say that their anxiety feels like a heart attack, as many of the physical symptoms of a panic attack resemble the symptoms of a heart attack. If you’ve never had a panic attack and you’re experiencing chest pain, go to the emergency room to rule out a severe medical problem. 

In most cases, panic attacks intensify quickly, and symptoms tend to subside within 10-15 minutes. When an individual experiences less than four of the above symptoms, the panic attack is referred to as a limited-symptom attack.

Types of Panic Attacks

Panic attacks can indicate a number of broader mental health disorders, including:

  • Panic disorder: Individuals with panic disorder experience frequent panic attacks, high anxiety sensitivity, and intense fear about experiencing future panic attacks.
  • Agoraphobia: Individuals with agoraphobia or social phobia may experience severe anxiety in public places and social situations, often leading to social isolation.
  • Other phobias: Specific phobias can cause panic attacks in reaction to the stimuli that trigger intense fear.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): Panic attacks are common symptoms of PTSD.
  • Substance abuse: For some people, alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, or drug use can lead to panic attacks.
  • Postpartum panic attacks: Some women experience panic attacks related to postpartum concerns.

How is panic disorder diagnosed?

Using the Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), panic disorder is classified as a type of anxiety disorder. According to the DSM-5 guidelines, individuals must experience unexpected panic attacks regularly to be diagnosed with panic disorder, 

It’s also important to note that a diagnostic exam must rule out other potential causes for the panic attack or what feels like one. The diagnosis of panic disorder also requires that:

  • The panic attacks must not be due to the direct physical symptoms of a substance (such as illicit drugs. stimulants, or medications) or a medical condition.
  • The attacks are not caused by another mental illness, including a social phobia or another specific phobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or separation anxiety disorder. Unlike anxiety attacks, panic attacks are unprovoked and are not caused by a stressor or stimuli.

What should you do if you’re experiencing panic attacks?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 2–3% of people experience panic disorder in the U.S. annually. If you’re experiencing panic attacks or suffering from persistent fear, seeking treatment can improve your quality of life. The treatment of panic disorder involves:

  • Therapy: Working with an experienced psychologist can help you manage the symptoms of panic. Forms of psychotherapy, including panic focused psychodynamic psychotherapy (PFPP), cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), exposure therapy, and mindfulness, are also an effective treatment for panic attacks.
  • Medication: A combination of medication and behavioral therapy is an effective treatment for managing the symptoms of panic. Although most anti-anxiety medications, antidepressants, beta-blockers, and benzodiazepines, come with side effects, a psychiatrist can help you manage side effects to find the best treatment for your panic attacks.
  • Check-ups: The symptoms of panic disorder can be linked to underlying medical conditions. Consequently, it’s essential to seek medical care to rule out related medical conditions, especially if you have a family history of heart disease, hyperthyroidism, asthma, or physical illnesses.
  • Lifestyle changes: Studies have shown that practicing muscle relaxation techniques, taking deep breaths, and exercising regularly can reduce the incidence of recurrent panic attacks and panic symptoms.
  • Support groups: If you’re experiencing feelings of embarrassment, support groups and group counseling can provide the peace of mind of knowing you’re not alone.

What should you look for in a therapist?

It’s helpful to find a psychologist with training in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or psychodynamic therapy. Additionally, search for a mental health specialist with experience treating individuals with panic disorder, as well as other types of anxiety disorders and psychiatric disorders.

If you’re seeking treatment for panic disorder, consider reaching out to a mental health specialist through With Therapy. With Therapy connects each patient to a personalized shortlist of mental health specialists and uses science and research to match personal preferences.

We’ll match you with a psychologist, counselor, social worker or other mental health professionals you feel comfortable with, regardless of your preferences and requirements. One of the qualified therapists on WithTherapy will help you recognize your stressors and create a treatment plan for your panic symptoms.

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