A panic attack is an intense episode of sudden fear that occurs when there’s
no apparent threat or danger. In some cases, you may mistake the symptoms of a
panic attack with a heart attack.
You might experience a single panic attack. Or you might have multiple panic
attacks throughout your life. If left untreated, recurrent panic attacks — and
the fear of experiencing them — may lead you to avoid other people or public
places. This may be a sign that you’ve developed a panic disorder.
are the symptoms of a panic attack?
Panic attacks trigger your sympathetic nervous system. This leads to the
“fight or flight” response that you experience when faced with danger.
A panic attack can occur suddenly and without warning. Its symptoms may come
on gradually and peak after about ten minutes. They may include one or more of
- chest pain
- difficulty swallowing
- difficulty breathing
- shortness of breath
- rapid heartbeat
- feeling faint
- hot flashes
- stomach pain
- tingling or numbness
- feeling that death is imminent
In some cases, you may develop an overwhelming fear of experiencing another
panic attack. This may be a sign that you’ve developed a panic disorder.
Panic attacks aren’t life threatening. But their symptoms can be similar to
those of other life-threatening health conditions, such as heart attack. If you
experience symptoms of a panic attack, seek medical attention right away. It’s
important to rule out the possibility that you’re actually having a heart
What causes panic attacks?
The exact cause of panic attacks is often unknown. In some cases, panic attacks
are linked to an underlying mental health condition, such as:
- panic disorder
- agoraphobia or other phobias
- obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
- post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
Stress can also contribute to panic attacks.
Who is at risk of panic
A variety of factors can increase your chances of experiencing a panic
attack. These include:
- having a family history of panic attacks
a history of childhood abuse
or living in a high-stress situation
a traumatic event, such as a serious car accident
a major life change, such as having a baby
a loved one
Living with a mental health condition, such as a phobia or
PTSD, can also raise your risk of panic attacks.
How are panic attacks
To diagnose a panic attack, your doctor will likely ask you about your
symptoms and medical history. They may also conduct a physical exam.
They may need to conduct tests to rule out a heart attack. The will likely
use an electrocardiogram (EKG) to measure the electric function of your heart. They
may also recommend blood tests to check your levels of thyroid hormones. A hormonal
imbalance can affect your body’s ability to regulate your heart rhythms.
If they suspect that you have a panic disorder or other mental health
condition, your doctor may refer you to a mental health specialist. You may
have a panic disorder if you:
- experience frequent panic attacks
- develop a persistent fear of experiencing another panic
- change your lifestyle or behavior due to your fear of experiencing
another panic attack
are panic attacks treated?
If your doctor suspects that your panic attacks are linked to an underlying
mental health condition, you may be referred to a mental health specialist. Depending
on your condition, your doctor may recommend a combination of medication,
therapy, and lifestyle changes to manage your symptoms.
- Your doctor or mental health specialist may
recommend one or more of the following medications:
- Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs): These
medications include fluoxetine
(Paxil and Pexeva), and sertraline
(Zoloft). They’re often used as a first-line treatment for the prevention of panic
attacks because they tend to cause lesser side effects than many other
- Benzodiazepines: These
medications include alprazolam
(Niravam, Xanax), clonazepam
(Klonopin), and lorazepam
(Ativan). They depress your central nervous system and have a mild sedative
effect. These medications may be given in the acute phase of the panic attack.
- Beta blockers: These
medications include carvedilol,
They may reduce the symptoms associated with a panic attack, including
sweating, dizziness, and a pounding heartbeat.
- Selective and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs): Venlafaxine
hydrochloride (Effexor XR) is an FDA-approved SNRI used to treat panic
disorders, and may help prevent future attacks.
If you have a panic disorder or other mental health condition, your doctor
may recommend psychotherapy to help treat it. For example, they may recommend
cognitive behavioral therapy. Your therapist will try to address the thoughts,
behaviors, and reactions associated with your panic attacks. This may help reduce
your fears and anxieties about them. They may also help “re-train” your brain
to better differentiate between real and perceived threats.
Attending a support group may also help you manage a panic
disorder. It can help you develop positive coping mechanisms for dealing with
fear, anxiety, and stress.
Taking steps to reduce stress and improve your overall health may help reduce
the incidence of panic attacks. For example, getting plenty of sleep and
staying physically active may help lower your stress levels. Stress management
techniques, such as deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation, may also
help. It’s also important to avoid or limit your consumption of alcohol,
caffeine, and illegal drugs.
is the outlook for panic attacks?
If left untreated, recurrent panic attacks may lead you to:
- feel anxiety when you
about the possibility of another panic attack
- avoid other people or public places for fear of
experiencing a panic attack
- develop agoraphobia, an intense fear of being
in public places
To avoid these complications, it’s important to seek treatment for panic
can panic attacks be prevented?
Most panic attacks are unpredictable. As a result, preventing them can be
But you can take some steps to enhance your overall well-being and lower
your risk of panic attacks. For example, it’s important to lead an overall
healthy lifestyle by:
- eating a well-balanced diet
- exercising regularly
- getting enough sleep
- taking steps to reduce stress
It’s also important to seek help from your doctor if you
experience a panic attack. Getting treatment may help you avoid more panic
attacks in the future.