Imagine walking home alone in the evening when suddenly, out of nowhere, you feel a wave of intense fear wash over you. Your heart starts pounding, your breathing becomes shallow and rapid, your palms begin to sweat, and your head starts to feel like it’s spinning.
These are all symptoms of a panic attack. By definition, a panic attack is a feeling of intense, crippling fear that comes on suddenly and, in most cases, without cause or warning. Panic attacks can be frightening and disruptive and may prevent you from living your life to the fullest.
What Causes Panic Attacks?
Panic attacks are thought to occur due to an over-reactivity of the body’s stress response, more commonly known as the “fight-or-flight” response. This is the body’s natural way of responding to danger, real or perceived.
During a panic attack, the body’s stress response is activated in the absence of any real danger. This causes the physical symptoms of a panic attack, such as a racing heart, trembling, and shortness of breath. While the exact cause of panic attacks is not fully understood, several potential triggering factors exist. These include:
- A family history of panic attacks or anxiety disorders
- Stressful life events, such as a divorce or the death of a loved one
- Certain medical conditions, such as thyroid problems
- Alcohol and substance abuse
- Reminders of a traumatic experience
Symptoms of Panic Attacks
The symptoms of a panic attack can be very frightening and usually peak within minutes. They include:
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Heart palpitations
- Shaking or trembling
- Sensations of suffocating or choking
- Nausea or abdominal discomfort
- Dizziness or feeling lightheaded
- Tingling or numbing sensations
- Chills or hot flashes
- Fear of dying or losing control
- Gastrointestinal disturbances, such as nausea, abdominal pain, or vomiting
Can Panic Attacks Become Chronic?
For most people, panic attacks occur only once or twice in their lifetime and do not require treatment. However, for others, panic attacks may become a chronic problem that requires medical intervention. This is known as panic disorder.
You may be diagnosed with panic disorder if you experience recurrent panic attacks or spend considerable time worrying about the next attack. Panic disorder is a serious mental illness that can significantly impair your productivity and quality of life.
Treatment for Panic Attacks
Fortunately, there are proven treatments available for people who experience persistent panic attacks. The most common treatment approach is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is a type of psychotherapy that uses various techniques to help people identify and change negative thinking patterns and behaviors that lead to panic attacks. Anti-anxiety medications may also be prescribed to help alleviate the symptoms of panic disorder.
In addition to conventional treatments, there are also some self-help measures you can take to lessen the frequency and intensity of panic attacks. These include:
- Identifying your triggers and learning to face your fears (exposure therapy may be helpful)
- Practicing relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation
- Exercising regularly
- Eating a healthy diet
- Limiting caffeine and alcohol intake
- Getting enough sleep
- Proper stress management
The Bottom Line
Panic attacks can be extremely overwhelming and debilitating, but they don’t have to take over your life. If you experience recurrent panic attacks or spend a lot of time worrying or avoiding situations that might trigger one, it’s important to seek professional help. With proper treatment, you can regain control of your life and stop living in fear.