What is a panic attack?

A counselor can help you learn coping techniques to use when you have a panic attack.
A counselor can help you learn coping techniques to use when you have a panic attack.

Many people with anxiety disorders experience panic attacks in their daily lives. While there isn’t currently a cure for panic disorders, treatment can help to manage and even prevent the attacks. If you believe you have the symptoms of panic attacks, talk to your doctor to learn more about the best treatment options for you.

While anyone can have a panic attack, many people with panic disorders can experience panic attacks regularly. In this type of anxiety disorder, your body does not have a normal response to danger. The response can happen unexpectedly and interrupt your quality of life.

Main symptoms of a panic attack

If you have panic attacks, you may feel sudden intense fear along with physical symptoms like shaking, sweating, chest tightness, and rapid heartbeat. You may feel like you are having a heart attack or even dying.

The severity of the condition varies from person to person. Your panic attacks may range from mild to severe. You can have multiple panic attacks in a day or week and then go weeks or months without one.

Main causes of a panic attack

There is no definite answer to what causes panic disorders, although they can be hereditary. Since panic attacks can be a genetic trait, family history is important in receiving a diagnosis.

Scientists believe that as your brain processes your surroundings and senses, miscommunication occurs. Regular sensations including touch, sounds, and things you see are interpreted as threats, triggering a fear response.

In some cases, a traumatic life event can trigger a panic attack, causing stress and increasing the likelihood that another one will happen in the future. 


A Visual Guide to Generalized Anxiety Disorder See Slideshow

Who can get a panic attack?

Since panic disorders can be hereditary, immediate relatives are considered four to eight times more likely to be at risk than others who do not have a family history.

Women are twice as likely to have a panic disorder than men, and the average age of diagnosis is 25. Still, panic disorders can affect anyone, including children and teens

How do you know if you are having a panic attack?

If you suffer from a panic disorder, you may have a constant underlying worry of when an episode may occur. Panic attacks are very sudden and the symptoms are physical and mental:

If you have a panic disorder, you may start to avoid places or scenarios where an attack previously occurred. Examples include loud, crowded environments like concerts or shopping malls.

No test can conclusively diagnose a panic disorder. Self-awareness is very important so you can explain when your panic attacks happen, as well as how you feel before, during, and after.

Your doctor may have you answer questions about your general feelings in life, behavior patterns, and routines. This screening is used to assess your mental health and the severity of your condition. 

Blood work can also help determine if there are imbalanced levels of anything in your system that may contribute to panic attacks. Since the symptoms of a panic attack are very similar to a heart attack and other serious conditions, your doctor may request a chest x-ray or other scan to rule out other problems. 

Treatments for panic attacks

While panic attacks do not pose any specific threats to your physical health, they are difficult to live with. Persistent panic attacks may lead to substance abuse or the development of additional disorders like agoraphobia, or the fear of being in crowded places. The best treatment option for your panic attacks will be different than someone else’s. 


Just as self-awareness is the key to diagnosis, it can also help you manage your attacks. A specialized counselor can help you with tools to help you ground yourself during attacks and recover more quickly.

A counselor can help you learn coping techniques to use when you have a panic attack. While they cannot be completely avoided, knowing what to do during a panic attack may help you overcome the episode and recover.


If your doctor suspects a chemical imbalance is triggering your attacks, medication, or other supplements can help to prevent attacks. Antidepressants are often prescribed because research shows they can reduce the number of attacks. 

In addition to these, you may need to make lifestyle changes to improve the disorder. A healthy diet and exercise has a positive effect on your body and mind and can help you to feel more in control of your life.

Risks of treatment for panic attacks

All medications have the potential for side effects, so talk to your doctor about what to expect. Maintain an open line of communication with your doctor and be candid about how well your treatment is working. It may take time to find the right combination of treatment options. 


Panic attacks are repeated attacks of fear that can last for several minutes. See Answer

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Medically Reviewed on 2/23/2021
American Family Physician: “Treatment of Panic Disorder.”

Child Mind Institute: “Panic Attacks and How to Treat Them.”

Harvard Medical School: “Panic Disorders.”

Medline Plus: “Panic Disorder Test.”

National Institute of Mental Health: “Panic Disorder: When Fear Overwhelms.”