These symptoms may mean you’re having a panic attack. Here’s what to do if you experience them.
Your heart is racing, you start to sweat and you feel dizzy. You have a sudden and overwhelming sense of fear even though you may have no reason to be fearful. When these symptoms suddenly appear, it’s natural to think you might be having a heart attack – or you may even feel like you’re dying. But you may actually be having a panic attack.
Many people experience a panic attack once or twice in their lives. But if you have had multiple panic attacks or the fear of having another one is disrupting your life, you may have panic disorder. Experts don’t know the exact cause of panic disorder, but undergoing a stressful life event or having a family history of the condition may increase your risk. Women are twice as likely to be affected as men.
What are the signs of a panic attack?
- Sudden and unexpected episodes of intense fear. These can last from a few minutes to several hours.
- Intense physical symptoms such as chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness, sweating, nausea, trembling, numbness, tingling or a fear of dying. You may think you’re having a heart attack because symptoms are often similar.
- Panic attacks do not have to have a specific trigger. They can occur whether the person feels calm or anxious. Even if there is a trigger, the response can be out of proportion to the trigger.
Once you’ve had a panic attack, you may constantly feel anxious at the thought of having another one. You may also develop a fear of places or situations associated with previous attacks. For example, someone who has had a panic attack in the car might develop a fear of driving. If you’ve had a panic attack while out in public, you may be afraid of crowded places.
What should you do if you have a panic attack?
When you experience signs of a panic attack for the first time, seek medical attention. Since symptoms can mimic other serious conditions, such as a heart attack, you’ll want to rule out other causes of the symptoms you are experiencing.
If you have experienced panic attacks in the past and know that is what’s causing your symptoms, there are techniques you can use to try to stop a panic attack when you feel one coming on. These include practicing deep breathing or mindfulness, closing your eyes while focusing on your happy place or using muscle relaxation techniques.
What is the treatment for panic disorder?
Many people only experience a panic attack once or twice in their lives or are able to control panic attacks by the self-administered techniques suggested above. But if you have recurrent panic attacks that are not well-controlled by these techniques or your fear of having another panic attack is negatively affecting your quality of life, you may have panic disorder.
If your doctor determines that you have panic disorder, you may benefit from treatment. Studies show treatment can greatly relieve this condition in as many as 90% of sufferers. Often a combination of psychotherapy, such as behavioral cognitive therapy, and a group of medications called benzodiazepines, such as Xanax or Klonopin, can help sufferers. Panic disorder cannot be completely cured but it may be effectively managed so that it doesn’t negatively impact your life.
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Date Last Reviewed: January 30, 2020
Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor
Medical Review: Perry Pitkow, MD