Panic Attacks

Overview

Panic Attacks are sudden bursts of fear or intense discomfort that exhibit themselves in the form of various physical and/or mental symptoms.

The Details

Panic Attacks are sudden onslaughts of intense discomfort, fear, and/or anxiety. They can be distinguished from more general anxiety because of the sudden intensity of the symptoms. Panic Attacks are sometimes called anxiety attacks, though the technically proper term is Panic Attack.


Panic Attacks take the form of sudden and relatively short bursts of arousal, fear, or discomfort. An individual experiencing an attack will typically feel the symptom intensity plateau within seconds. Though the duration will vary, most panic attacks last a few minutes.


Whether a person is relaxed or anxious prior to an attack doesn’t matter. A panic attack can happen at any time.


A formal Panic Attack must have four of the following primary symptoms:


  • Rapid heart rate, a pounding heart, and/or palpitations (fluttering, skipped beats, or other abnormalities)

  • Sweating

  • Shaking or trembling

  • Shortness of breath

  • A choking sensation

  • Chest pain

  • Nausea or abdominal discomfort

  • Feeling dizzy, light-headed, or faint

  • Sudden body temperature changes (e.g. chills or a rush of heat)

  • Numbness or tingling sensations

  • Derealization (the sense that things around you or even yourself aren’t real) or Depersonalization (feeling disconnected from yourself- almost like you’re watching yourself from outside your body)

  • Feeling that you’re losing control

  • Feeling like you’re going to die


While the symptoms listed here are the primary symptoms of a panic attack there are a variety of other symptoms that a person may experience such as headaches, neck pain, screaming, crying, feelings of embarrassment, or increased sensitivity to light and/or sounds.


A panic attack can be expected or unexpected. An expected panic attack is one that has an identifiable source or cause. For example if someone who has had panic attacks in the past when waiting to speak in public suddenly has another one while waiting to make a speech, that particular attack would be considered "expected". By contrast, an unexpected panic attack is one that seems to come about out of nowhere, with no obvious cause.


The frequency, duration, and intensity can vary dramatically from one attack to the next. Some may be short while others last for several minutes. One person may have approximately one a week or one a month, while another person has several every day. Likewise, one attack may be particularly intense and have numerous symptoms while the next is milder and has fewer symptoms.


Approximately 25% - 33% of people diagnosed with Panic Disorder (a formal diagnosis) will experience nocturnal panic attacks, where they suddenly wake up from a sound sleep to find themselves in the middle of a panic attack.


In addition, the actual symptoms that a person experiences may be fairly consistent or may vary from attack to attack. Panic Attacks will also vary in both intensity and duration. Some attacks can feel especially strong or long lasting while others may feel milder or shorter.

Trends

Over 11% of adults in the United States will experience a panic attack each year, while the rates are much lower, between 2.7% and 3.3%, in Europe. Most people who have panic attacks are young adults. The average age for a person's first panic attack in the United States is 22-23. While children can have panic attacks, it is uncommon in those under 14. Older adults are also less likely to have panic attacks.


While the rates of panic attacks do not appear to vary between racial or cultural groups, some of the specific symptoms may. For example, research has shown that people of African descent have higher rates of numbness and tingling feelings and that people of Asian descent have higher rates of dizziness.


Women tend to experience panic attacks more often than men, though there are no apparent differences between males and females with respect to which symptoms are more likely to be experienced.

Summary

Panic Attacks are sudden bursts of fear or intense discomfort that exhibit themselves in the form of various physical and/or mental symptoms.


Panic Attacks have a quick onset and usually last for only a few minutes, though individual experiences will vary. Panic Attacks can be anticipated and expected or unexpected. A person can begin having an attack at any time, whether they’re currently feeling anxious or relaxed.


The frequency, duration, and intensity can vary dramatically from one attack to the next. Similarly, the actual symptoms that a person experiences can be fairly consistent or can vary from one attack to the next.


In order to obtain a proper diagnosis it’s important to keep in mind that there are some medical conditions that can cause symptoms mimicking panic attacks such as hyperthyroidism, seizures, arrhythmias, and asthma. Certain substances such as cocaine, amphetamines, and alcohol can do the same.

Disclaimer

All information on this website has been professionally prepared, but also intentionally written in a manner that is not overly technical. The terms used here are usually, but not always the formal and proper terminology or diagnoses that would be used between professionals. Similarly, we made a decision to not provide the full and exhaustive diagnostic criteria here. This is done so as to be informative and more easily understood by people who are not in the field of mental health. At the same time all reasonable efforts are taken to assure that the information presented here is as accurate as possible. We also provide a list of common definitions and abbreviations that you may find useful.

While clinical descriptions are not intended to be overly technical, they do attempt to be accurate and consistent with the DSM standards. Any changes made are superficial and done so for the sake of ease of comprehension.

 

It’s important to point out that the information provided on this website is not designed to replace a proper clinical assessment performed by a qualified professional. The descriptions on this website are not intended, nor should they be used to self-diagnose or to diagnose those around you.

Please also see our Terms & Conditions and particularly the sections on Clinical Information and Mental Health Conditions.

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