What is a panic attack?
A panic attack is when all of a sudden you get very scared and anxious. You might also have chest pain and choking and feel sick to your stomach, dizzy, and short of breath. A panic attack goes away in 10 or 15 minutes.
Panic attacks may be triggered by something scary, like seeing a snake, or they may just come on their own
During a panic attack, you may think you're having a serious medical problem, like a heart attack or stroke
Although panic attacks are uncomfortable and scary, they aren’t dangerous
Panic attacks are common—each year, about 1 in 10 adults have a panic attack
What is panic disorder?
Panic disorder is when you keep having panic attacks and also:
Worry a lot about having more attacks
Worry that you're going crazy or going to lose control of yourself
Avoid going places or doing your usual activities because you think you might have an attack
What causes panic attacks?
Panic attacks can be triggered by something you're scared of. For example, if you're afraid of snakes, you might have a panic attack when you see a snake. But panic attacks sometimes happen for no apparent reason. Also, doctors aren't sure why some people get panic attacks when something scary happens and some people don't.
What are the symptoms of a panic attack?
Although panic attacks are uncomfortable and scary, they aren’t dangerous. Symptoms start quickly and are gone within 10 or 15 minutes.
The main symptoms are:
Sudden intense fear and discomfort
People also have at least 4 of these other symptoms:
Chest pain or discomfort
Feeling like you’re choking
Dizziness or faintness
Feeling sick to your stomach, or having a stomachache or diarrhea
Numbness or tingling in lips and fingers
Feeling your heart pounding or beating fast
Feeling short of breath or like you’re being smothered
Trembling or shaking
Fear that you're dying
Fear that you're going crazy or losing control
Feeling like things around you aren’t real
How can doctors tell if I have panic attacks?
Your doctor will check for a physical cause of your symptoms. For example, if you have chest pain, doctors will check you for a heart attack. If your symptoms don’t have a physical cause, doctors will suspect panic attacks.
How do doctors treat panic attacks or panic disorder?
Some people get better without treatment. For others, panic attacks come and go over years. Treatment for panic attacks and panic disorder may include:
Therapy, such as exposure therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, or supportive psychotherapy
Exposure therapy helps lessen the fear by:
Exposing you gradually and repeatedly to whatever triggers your attacks until you’re comfortable with it
If you're afraid of fainting, helping you practice the feeling of faintness caused by breathing quickly so that you know you won’t actually faint during a panic attack
Cognitive-behavioral therapy teaches:
Not to avoid situations that cause panic attacks
To recognize when your fears aren’t realistic
To respond instead with slow, controlled breathing or other relaxation techniques
Supportive psychotherapy includes education and counseling to give you:
General information about the disorder and its treatment
Realistic hope for improvement
Support that comes from a trusting relationship with a doctor