Panic Attacks: The Story of an Overpowering Fear

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Panic attacks are when you experience a sudden feeling of intense fear with no apparent threat or danger.  This triggers a "fight or flight" response in your body, making your heart rate increase.  You may experience a feeling of shortness of breath, dizziness, shaking, or a fear of dying.  The exact cause of panic attacks is unknown.  At this time, there are two main treatment options available – medications and therapy.

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“One day, without any warning or reason, a feeling of terrible anxiety came crashing down on me. I felt like I couldn’t get enough air, no matter how hard I breathed. My heart was pounding out of my chest, and I thought I might die. I was sweating and felt dizzy. I felt like I had no control over these feelings and like I was drowning and couldn’t think straight.

“After what seemed like an eternity, my breathing slowed and I eventually let go of the fear and my racing thoughts, but I was totally drained and exhausted. These attacks started to occur every couple of weeks, and I thought I was losing my mind. My friend saw how I was struggling and told me to call my doctor for help.”

This is an example of what it feels like to have a panic attack.  Have you ever experienced anything like this?

Panic Attack Overview

A panic attack is a sudden feeling of intense fear when there is no apparent threat or danger.

You may experience a single panic attack or multiple panic attacks throughout your life. 

Panic attacks can be a symptom of panic disorder, a condition where someone experiences panic attacks and are overcome with the fear of having another attack. 

Panic disorder can interfere with daily life, causing someone to avoid situations due to their fear of having an attack.

Anyone can experience a panic attack, but they occur in twice as many women than men.

What are the Symptoms of a Panic Attack?

Panic attacks trigger your “fight or flight” response when you are in a dangerous situation. 

During a panic attack, the symptoms seem to come out of nowhere.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, a panic attack includes at least four of the following symptoms:

  • Sweating
  • Palpitations, pounding heart, or increased heart rate
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Feeling of shortness of breath
  • Feeling of choking
  • Chest pain or chest discomfort
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness, light-headedness, or feeling faint
  • Chills
  • Numbness or tingling sensation
  • Feeling of unreality or being detached from oneself
  • Fear of losing control
  • Fear of dying

Although panic attacks can feel like the most frightening, shocking, and uncomfortable experience in a person’s life, they typically last between 10-15 minutes and are not life-threatening.

Panic attack symptoms can be similar to those of some life-threatening conditions, such as a heart attack.  If you are experiencing symptoms of a panic attack, it is best to seek medical attention right away.

What can Cause a Panic Attack?

The exact cause of panic attacks is not fully understood. 

There are indications that it may be a combination of genetic, biological, psychological, and environmental factors.

For example, a panic attack can be caused by an over-responsive amygdala, the brain’s fear center. 

In some cases, panic attacks may be linked to an underlying mental health condition:

  • Agoraphobia
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Panic disorder
  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)

Stressful life events can also trigger panic attacks, such as a recent loss, public speaking, or flying. 

Can you Treat Panic Attacks?

The most common treatments are medications and therapy sessions.

Talk therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) helps you understand and how to change your behaviors.  During a talk therapy session, you may learn how to:

  • Understand distorted views of life stressors
  • Manage stress and learn to relax when symptoms occur
  • Practice in real-life situations to overcome fears
  • Recognize and replace thoughts that cause panic

Medications may also treat panic attacks.  Doctors may prescribe one of the following: classes of medications:

  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRIs)
  • Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (SNRIs)
  • Beta-blockers
  • Benzodiazepines

For questions about these medications, speak with your primary care provider or pharmacist.

Other potential ways to help combat panic attacks are following a healthy lifestyle, getting enough sleep, and exercising.

The Bottom Line

Panic attacks occur when there is a sudden feeling of fear with no apparent threat or danger.  Women are twice as likely to experience a panic attack compared to men.

Panic attacks trigger a “fight or flight” response in your body, and symptoms may include a pounding heart, dizziness, a fear of dying or shaking/trembling.

The exact cause of panic attacks is unknown.  There may be a combination of factors such as genetic, biological, psychological, or environmental.

The two main treatment options include medications or therapy.  Healthy lifestyle choices, exercise, and adequate sleep may also help combat panic attacks.  Contact your primary care provider to discuss what treatment options might be best for you.

References, Studies and Sources:

Panic disorder: When fear overwhelms. National Institute of Mental Health website. Updated 2016. Accessed September 23, 2020.

Answers to Your Questions About Panic Disorder. American Psychological Association website. Accessed September 23, 2020.

Panic Disorder. Anxiety and Depression Association of America website. Accessed September 23, 2020.

Symptoms. Anxiety and Depression Association of America website. Accessed September 23, 2020.

Pollack MH, Marzol PC. Panic: course, complications and treatment of panic disorder. J Psychopharmacol. 2000;14(2 Suppl 1):S25-30. doi: 10.1177/02698811000142S104. PMID: 10888028.

Panic disorder. MedlinePlus website. Accessed September 23, 2020.

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