Anyone can experience a panic attack, irrespective of whether or not they have been diagnosed with an anxiety condition. Panic attacks are sudden, unexpected episodes of fear, anxiety and discomfort that are accompanied by physical sensations.
Panic attacks can be triggered by many stimuli (e.g., crowded restaurant, dog barking, sweating palms); however, the hallmark of a panic attack is that it happens in response to a perceived threat not a threat that actually exists (e.g., attacking dog, out of control car). When your brain perceives a threat, it combines this with previous memories of the threat, to send a message to your adrenal glands, through your hypothalamus and pituitary gland. The adrenal glands subsequently release hormones, which prepare your body to react to the perceived threat. The physical reactions, which occur within seconds, include increased breathing rate, rapid heartbeat, digestion shutdown, sweating, increased alertness of the senses, and tense muscles. These physical sensations are what individuals experience as symptoms of panic. One way to think of a panic attack is that the danger button in your brain was accidentally pushed: you are not actually in danger, it just feels like you are.
Individuals are said to have experienced a panic attack if the period of intense fear or discomfort is episodic (i.e., not ongoing) and accompanied by at least 4 of 13 physical symptoms, such as:|
- Palpitations, increased heart rate or pounding heart
- Trembling or shaking
- Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
- Feeling of choking
- Chest pain, pressure or discomfort
- Nausea or abdominal distress
- Dizziness, unsteadiness, lightheadedness or fainting
- Fear of losing control or going crazy
- Fear of dying
- Paresthesia (numbness or tingling sensation in hands and feet)
- Chills or hot flashes
- Sense of feeling unreal, disconnected from one’s surroundings or body
Panic attacks are often confused with heart attacks, brain tumors or other physiological symptoms/conditions. Persistent panic (condition) involves the presence of recurrent, unexpected attacks, followed by at least 1 month of persistent concern about having additional attacks, worry about the implication of the attack or its consequences, or a significant change in behavior related to the attacks. Individuals who experience panic conditions experience panic attacks that are unrelated to substance abuse, medical conditions, or another psychological condition (i.e., OCD).
Individuals who experience panic attacks often report experiencing fear that something terrible is going to happen; however, they are often unable to identify what their fear is related to, which typically worsens their feelings of anxiety. It is very common for individuals who experience panic attacks to fear doing something silly, to fear acting out of control, to fear fainting, or to fear dying. Despite the fact that panic attacks last for a short period of time, individuals who experience them are often exhausted for several hours afterward.