Understanding Panic Disorder (Panic Attack)

A panic attack is a sudden, intense fear that lasts for several minutes when there is no real danger. With it comes terror, physical symptoms, and a strong need to escape from wherever you are. If you have these attacks often, you have panic disorder. The attacks can be very frightening. You may be scared of having another one. You may even stay away from a place where you’ve had an attack. Some people become so afraid of having panic attacks, it’s very hard for them to leave home.

Before accepting a diagnosis of panic disorder, it is important to see your doctor and have your symptoms evaluated to make certain you do not have another medical condition that is causing the panic symptoms. Conditions that can do that include certain heart and lung conditions and thyroid disease. Too much caffeine or the use of other stimulants such as certain drugs of abuse can also cause panic attack symptoms.

Man holding hands to forehead, looking distressed.

What does a panic attack feel like?

Most panic attacks start suddenly, for no clear reason. They last about 5 to 20 minutes. A panic attack can start at any time, even while you’re sleeping. During the attack, you may have:

  • A sudden surge of anxiety, as if you just missed hitting someone with your car — but with a panic attack, you’re anxious for no clear reason

  • Physical symptoms, such as sweating, shortness of breath, a pounding heart, trembling, feeling like you’re choking, chest pain, nausea, or dizziness

  • A fear that you’re having a heart attack, dying, or about to lose control

  • A feeling that things happening around you are not real

What to do during a panic attack

  • Remind yourself that your body is having a false alarm. Nothing bad will happen to you. You’ve survived attacks before, and you will this time, too.

  • Don’t fight your feelings. Let them come. Ride them out. Focus on a task like counting backward from 100. Think about some place relaxing, such as a tropical island or quiet meadow. Ask your doctor or therapist to suggest other relaxation techniques.

  • If your symptoms worsen or occur more often, see your healthcare provider.

Help to overcome the fear

Fear of a panic attack can make you miserable, but with professional support and self-monitoring strategies, it can be managed. Ask your doctor or therapist for help. Remember these tips:

  • Keep in mind that places and activities don’t cause attacks. Separate the attack from the situation. Make an effort not to avoid the situation in the future.

  • Don’t give in to the temptation to use alcohol or unprescribed drugs as an escape. In the long run, they will only add to your problems.

Warning signs for suicide

Panic disorders can be a discouraging, frightening condition that can lead some people to consider self-harm or suicide. It is very important to work with a trusted therapist, take any medicines as prescribed, and seek help if you have any of these symptoms:

  • Thinking often about taking your life

  • Planning how you may attempt it.

  • Talking or writing about committing suicide

  • Feeling that death is the only solution to your problems

  • Feeling a pressing need to make out your will or arrange your funeral

  • Giving away things you own

  • Participating in risky behaviors, such as sex with someone you don't know or drinking and driving

If you notice any of these warning signs, get help right away. You can call a mental health clinic, a 24-hour suicide crisis hotline, or go to a hospital emergency room.

Other resources

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
800-273-8255 (800-273-TALK)
National Suicide Hotline
800-784-2433 (800-SUICIDE)
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
Mental Health America

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