What is a panic attack?

Panic attacks are episodes of intense fear or dread that cause a severe physical reaction. Panic attacks can come on suddenly and often occur when there is no genuine physical danger or obvious cause.
Panic attacks are episodes of intense fear or dread that cause a severe physical reaction. Panic attacks can come on suddenly and often occur when there is no genuine physical danger or obvious cause.

Panic attacks are episodes of intense fear or dread that cause a severe physical reaction. Panic attacks can come on suddenly and often occur when there is no genuine physical danger or obvious cause.

Nonetheless, panic attacks are often a very frightening experience. You may feel like you have no control, are experiencing a physical illness, or even like you are dying.

You may experience only one panic attack in your life, or you may experience recurring panic attacks that occur suddenly. If you live in fear of an impending panic attack, you may be experiencing panic disorder. Panic disorder is common, affecting about 4% of the population.

Panic attacks are not life-threatening or immediately dangerous. However, they can damage your quality of life and cause excessive stress.

Panic attacks can have many triggers, including:

  • Reaction to medication
  • Genetic predisposition to anxiety disorders
  • Life stressors
  • A traumatic situation
  • Dramatic life changes
  • Caffeine
  • Exercise

Signs and symptoms of panic attacks

Typically, a panic attack can occur very suddenly and without warning in any type of situation. You may experience panic attacks quite frequently or rarely, depending on what triggers your panic attacks.

A panic attack usually only lasts a few minutes and may leave you feeling exhausted or overwhelmed. 

Though they vary from person to person, the signs and symptoms of a panic attack typically include:

Because the symptoms of panic attacks are so intense, they often lead to the continued fear of experiencing future panic attacks. 

Causes of panic attacks

There are many potential triggers for panic attacks. Some experience panic attacks suddenly and for no clear reason. Others experience attacks due to triggers such as: 

Chronic illness

Some chronic illnesses, such as hypothyroidism, can impact the major processes of the body. This can lead to hormonal imbalances or other conditions that can contribute to feelings of anxiety and panic attacks.

Genetic predisposition

Research shows that panic attacks and panic disorder sometimes run in families, though studies cannot yet pinpoint why.

Substance abuse

Research shows that those who experience alcoholism or other forms of substance abuse are more likely to develop panic attacks or panic disorder.

Anxiety

Panic attacks are the body’s reaction to a perceived threat — even if the threat is unfounded or psychological. Because of this, if you experience anxiety, such as agoraphobia, you are more likely to have a panic attack related to your specific phobias or fears. Even general feelings of anxiety can develop into a panic attack.

Medication

Some medications can cause anxiety as a side effect — which may trigger a panic attack.

Caffeine

Drinking liquids with caffeine — such as coffee or soda — or taking headache medicine with caffeine can amplify your body’s response to stress. This can result in heightened anxiety or panic attacks.

Stress

Stressful life events can put you at much higher risk for a panic attack. Some researchers believe that stress lowers your resistance to a physical predisposition for attacks.

PTSD

If you have experienced a traumatic incident or period, panic attacks can be a symptom of post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

QUESTION

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

When to see the doctor for panic attacks

If you are experiencing signs or symptoms of a panic attack, it is best to seek medical attention. While panic attacks are not dangerous, they are difficult to manage without treatment and can impact your quality of.

Some symptoms of a panic attack mimic the symptoms of a heart attack and other medical emergencies. Seek immediate care if you are experiencing any symptoms of a heart attack. 

Diagnosing panic attacks

To diagnose panic attacks, your doctor will likely talk to you about your symptoms. They will complete a physical exam and discuss your medical history to rule out or determine any underlying causes. 

Your doctor may refer you to a mental health specialist to help manage your panic attacks.

Treatments for panic attacks

A doctor will often recommend medication, psychotherapy, or a combination of the two for panic attacks or panic disorders. Psychotherapy addresses the way you think and react to a panic attack and its physical symptoms.

Your doctor will help you figure out the best treatment plan to suit your needs. They may also recommend lifestyle changes and healthy habits to help support your treatment.

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Medically Reviewed on 1/15/2021
References
American Psychological Association: "Answers to Your Questions About Panic Disorder."

National Institute of Mental Health: "Panic Disorders: When Fear Overwhelms."

Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews: "ETIOLOGY, TRIGGERS AND NEUROCHEMICAL CIRCUITS ASSOCIATED WITH UNEXPECTED, EXPECTED, AND LABORATORY-INDUCED PANIC ATTACKS."

Psychiatry Investigation: "Panic Disorder: Current Research and Management Approaches."

StatPearls: "Panic Disorder."