Panic Attacks

What is a panic attack?

While there is something called a panic attack disorder, panic attacks can be the symptom of many conditions. A panic attack is an episode of a sudden onset of intense apprehension, fearfulness, or terror, often associated with feelings of impending doom. A person experiencing a panic attack may notice symptoms such as shortness of breath, palpitations, chest pain or discomfort, choking or smothering sensations, and/or fear of “going crazy.”

What things put a person at higher risk of experiencing a panic attack?

Certainly there is evidence that the tendency to have panic attacks can sometimes be inherited. However, there is also evidence that panic may be a learned response and that the attacks can be initiated in otherwise healthy people simply given the right set of circumstances. Research into the causes of panic attacks is ongoing.

Research is inconsistent as to whether nutritional deficiencies (for example, zinc or magnesium deficiency) may be risk factors for panic disorder. While food additives like aspartame, alone or in combination with food dyes, are suspected to play a role in the development of panic attacks in some people, more research is needed to understand their role in this disorder.

Can panic attacks be treated?

Panic attacks can be treated with medications and with psychosocial treatment, although medication is usually reserved for persons with panic disorder (meaning that one of their symptoms is that they are experiencing multiple, recurring episodes of unexpected and unexplained panic attacks.

Psychosocial treatments may include breathing exercises and retraining, relaxation exercises, exposing the individual to the situations that cause the panic attack, exposure to the bodily sensations that accompany the panic attack to show that the sensations are harmless, or restructuring thoughts or beliefs about the dangerousness of bodily sensations (e.g., an individual’s belief that palpitations lead to heart attacks.)

How does a panic attack (or panic attacks) progress?

Panic attacks have a sudden onset and builds to a peak rapidly, usually within 10 minutes or less. Unexpected panic attacks are those which are not associated with any internal or external trigger that the individual notices. Situational panic attacks almost always occur immediately on exposure to, or in anticipation of, a trigger such as having to speak in public. If the panic associated with a situation does not always occur when that situation occurs, it is termed a predisposed panic attack.

Do people with panic attacks get better?

Some people have a single attack and are never bothered again. Yet, two-thirds of people experiencing a panic attack go on to be diagnosed with panic disorder. Also, half of those who go through a panic attack will develop clinical depression within the following year.

It is important to get a good evaluation and diagnosis to understand and prevent future attacks. As a person comes to recognize the symptoms of panic attack and complies with whatever treatment is eventually recommended, the person can hope to end the panic attacks and not progress toward depression or even suicidal behavior.

Occasionally, a person will, after a long evaluation, be diagnosed with a medical condition that causes panic symptoms.

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