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Panic Attacks: Symptoms, Types, Treatment

Panic Attacks

Panic attacks tend to strike suddenly and without warning. In general, people experiencing a panic attack feel a sudden onset of terror or existential dread, often indescribable, and may fear they are losing control or dying. Along with a general sense of fear, panic attacks typically have tell-tale physical signs.

A fear-inducing factor of panic attacks is that physical symptoms often mirror serious conditions like heart attacks, which makes experiencing a panic attack all the more alarming.

Because panic attacks can occur at any time and for several reasons, they are often difficult to prevent or eliminate. However, knowing the signs and symptoms of a panic attack and seeking medical advice can help you mitigate the effects.

Symptoms of Panic Attacks

Panic attacks can be triggered by surroundings or as a response to trauma. However, they are often not tied to the situation at hand, making them difficult to identify.

Key characteristics of a panic attack include:

  • Rapid or racing pulse
  • Feeling weak, faint, or dizzy
  • Tingling or numbness in the arms, legs, or extremities
  • An inexplicable sense of terror, impending doom, or imminent death
  • Sweating or chills
  • Chest tightness or pain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Feeling a loss of control

Panic attacks tend to be brief, with symptoms subsiding after around 10 minutes. However, panic attacks can last much longer, especially when someone is experiencing one for the first time.

Testing for Panic Attacks

If you experience the symptoms of a panic attack, seek medical attention immediately. It may seem excessive, but it’s crucial to rule out a serious issue like a heart attack.

To diagnose a panic attack, doctors typically ask about symptoms, medical history, and lifestyle habits and may also wish to conduct a physical exam. To rule out a heart attack, your doctor may measure your heart function using an EKG machine. If they suspect a thyroid issue or other hormone imbalance is the culprit, they may recommend having bloodwork done.

If your doctor does not find evidence of an underlying condition, they will likely diagnose a panic attack and may consider the possibility of a panic disorder based on your symptoms and risk factors.

A panic disorder is typically present if the patient:

  • Worries about panic attacks reoccurring
  • Has persistent fears of losing control during a panic attack
  • Regularly avoids situations that may trigger a panic attack

People who have had a panic attack tend to be at greater risk for subsequent attacks. If panic attacks occur repeatedly, it may suggest the presence of a panic disorder.

Types of Panic Attacks

Although the nature of attacks varies, panic attacks have been classified into three main categories:

  • Spontaneous attacks, which occur without warning and independent of environmental factors. Spontaneous panic attacks sometimes happen during sleep.
  • Situational attacks, which are triggered by exposure to certain situations or environments. For example, ochlophobia, the fear of large crowds, may trigger a situational panic attack.
  • Situationally predisposed panic attacks, which tend to occur in specific situations, but on an inconsistent basis. For example, a person may fear hospitals but not experience a panic attack every time they enter a hospital.

Determining the origin of a panic attack can be difficult, as several different elements may be at play during an attack. However, they can often be traced back to some of the following factors:

  • Biological Factors. Those with a family history of panic attacks are at greater risk of experiencing them. For several biological and circumstantial reasons, women are twice as likely as men to develop panic disorders.
  • Mental Health Factors. People with anxiety disorders, phobias, or PTSD are more likely to experience panic attacks. 
  • Lifestyle Factors. Poor lifestyle habits like overconsumption of caffeine, lack of sleep, and recreational substance abuse can lead to panic attacks, especially in people with existing mental health conditions like anxiety.
  • Situational Factors. People who work or live in high-stress environments may be at increased risk of panic attacks. Similarly, a major life change, like the birth of a child or the death of a loved one, may trigger a panic attack.
  • Substance Abuse Factors. Alcohol and drug abuse can lead to panic attacks in some.
  • Trauma-related Factors. People who have experienced a traumatic event such as a serious car accident or childhood abuse are more likely to experience panic attacks.

Treatment Options for Panic Attacks

Panic attacks are typically treated using medication, therapy, lifestyle changes, or a combination of the three. If your doctor suspects an underlying mental health condition, they may refer you to a mental health specialist for treatment. If you are experiencing panic attacks, talk to a licensed medical professional about which option is best for you.