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.
Although panic attacks themselves aren’t life-threatening, they can be frightening and significantly affect your quality of life. But treatment can be very effective.
Panic attacks typically begin suddenly, without warning. They can strike at any time — when you’re driving a car, at the mall, sound asleep or in the middle of a business meeting. You may have occasional panic attacks, or they may occur frequently.
Panic attacks have many variations, but symptoms usually peak within minutes. You may feel fatigued and worn out after a panic attack subsides.
Panic attacks typically include some of these signs or symptoms:
- Sense of impending doom or danger
- Fear of loss of control or death
- Rapid, pounding heart rate
- Trembling or shaking
- Chest pain
- Dizziness, lightheadedness or faintness
- Shortness of breath or tightness in your throat
- Hot flashes
- Abdominal cramping
- Numbness or tingling sensation (hands, feet, and mouth)
- Feeling of unreality or detachment
One of the worst things about panic attacks is the intense fear that you’ll have another one. You may fear having panic attacks so much that you avoid certain situations where they may occur.
WHEN TO SEE A DOCTOR
If you have panic attack symptoms, seek medical help as soon as possible. Panic attacks, while intensely uncomfortable, are not dangerous. But panic attacks are hard to manage on your own, and they may get worse without treatment.
Panic attack symptoms can also resemble symptoms of other serious health problems, such as a heart attack, so it’s important to get evaluated by your primary care provider if you aren’t sure what’s causing your symptoms.
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.