Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 4/01/2021
Panic attacks can be pretty scary. The feeling of intense anxiety suddenly overtaking your body is often mistaken for heart attacks and all sorts of other severe medical issues for a reason: they’re real, physiological events.
People who haven’t dealt with anxiety or panic attacks may not understand how intense it can feel to be suddenly overwhelmed by fear and dizziness, but if you’ve had one or more yourself, you know all too well that they’re scary when they happen, and even scarier when they could return at any time.
Unfortunately, many people aren’t even aware they’re dealing with the potential signs of a panic disorder. If your anxiety had crested into one of these attacks, or if you think you may have experienced one or more in the past, you’re probably here to find out more about panic attacks, and that’s good, because knowing the symptoms and being able to spot them can be an empowering way to take more control of the situation.
Here’s what you need to know.
If you’re experiencing panic attacks, the first reassuring thing we can tell you is that you’re not alone. Panic disorders are one of the most common anxiety disorders in the western world.
The main feature of this condition is panic attacks.
Panic attacks are unexpected and intense episodes of fear and anxiety, and they often come with physical symptoms.
To some people, it will feel like an adrenaline spike, or the activation of your fight or flight response.
Why people suffer from these conditions isn’t fully understood. Panic disorders can develop after stressful events, but there’s also a genetic and therefore inherited basis for how they’re acquired. Excess caffeine and misuse or withdrawal from drugs and alcohol can also cause them.
Panic disorder is also associated with a number of other psychiatric conditions, including other anxiety disorders and depression. A third of depression patients will have a panic disorder.
While panic attacks may feel different to different people, there are some common traits all panic attacks share.
Most obvious of these is a sudden sense of, well panic. But that panic can take many forms, both physical and psychological. Panic attack sufferers may feel irrational fears, or they may feel body-specific symptoms.
Panic attacks are generally defined as having at least four of a list of symptoms.
They include: feeling of choking, chest pain, trembling, sweating, palpitations and rapid pulse, fear of losing control, fear of dying, abdominal discomfort, feeling faint or dizzy, chills and/or hot flashes, numbness, shortness of breath and feelings of detachment or feeling that the situation is otherwise unreal.
Panic attacks and panic disorder can be attached or unattached to agoraphobia — the fear of large crowds and large numbers of people.
With so many symptoms, it can start to feel overwhelming just thinking about how to handle the problem. Thankfully, there are effective treatments available to help you reduce the intensity and frequency of episodes.
Treatment for panic attacks and panic disorder may come in a variety of forms. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is among the most well-known modern psychotherapy forms, and while it’s used to treat depression, it’s also often employed for anxiety disorder sufferers to help them recognize disordered thinking that may bring on attacks.
Understanding disordered thinking is the first step in correcting the behaviors and the thought patterns that can lead to attacks, and a therapist can help you craft strategies using CBT to further prevent attacks in the future. Consult a mental health professional to decide if this treatment is right for you.
While antidepressants are used predominantly to treat depression, these drugs, which affect the serotonin levels in your brain, can also be used to deal with symptoms.
Serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are the most commonly prescribed antidepressants, and they block serotonin from being reabsorbed into neurons, which keeps more serotonin available to improve transmission between neurons.
While they offer an effective treatment option, you should monitor yourself for other issues if you decide to take SSRIs.
Side effects can include sexual dysfunction, sleep disturbances, weight changes, anxiety, dizziness, dry mouth, headache, and others. Discontinuation of the prescription can also cause some additional problems — including increased risk of suicide.
If you’re experiencing panic attacks, you should reach out to a healthcare professional as soon as possible.
Panic attacks and their symptoms aren’t likely to go away on their own, and left untreated they can become a life-hindering condition. Panic disorders can increase your risk of suicede and depression, and they can become more serious if not treated.