A panic attack is a sudden rush of fear and anxiety that causes both physical and psychological symptoms. The level of fear experienced is unrealistic and out of proportion to the events or circumstances that trigger the panic attack. Anyone can have a single panic attack, but frequent and ongoing episodes may be a sign of a panic or anxiety disorder that requires treatment.
The physical symptoms of a panic attack can include fast breathing, severe perspiration, trembling, nausea, dizziness, numbness or tingling, chills or sensations of heat, and increased heart rate. In addition to extreme fear, there may be feelings of disconnection from oneself, loss of control, imminent danger, and a strong desire to flee or avoid the situation. These symptoms, which often resemble the symptoms of a heart attack or respiratory disorder, may be accompanied by a fear of dying. The onset of symptoms is sudden and can develop from either a calm or anxious state. Some people experience limited-symptom panic attacks, which consist of less than four of the common symptoms listed above. Panic attacks last from about five to 20 minutes, generally peaking within 10 minutes. A panic attack can occur several times within the span of a few hours and, for some people, every day or once a week. Those who have frequent panic attacks often come to recognize the situations that trigger an attack and learn to be prepared.
The cause of panic attacks is unknown but there are several theories, including a chemical imbalance in the brain or a genetic predisposition. They can be triggered by a variety of conditions and situations, including the presence of a mood disorder, such as anxiety or depression; extreme stress over a long period of time; a physical health problem such as a heart, respiratory, or thyroid condition; overuse of alcohol, nicotine, or caffeine; and the side effects of some medical and recreational drugs. Frequent panic attacks generally indicate a panic disorder. Panic attacks can also occur while an individual is sleeping, causing them to wake up suddenly with feelings of fear and dread. Adolescents and young adults who have panic attacks often have other mental health issues or are at significant risk of developing other conditions, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, mood disorders, eating disorders, or substance use disorder.
People who experience frequent panic attacks will often make lifestyle changes, like trying to avoid events and settings where symptoms are more likely to occur. Unfortunately, this can lead them to develop specific phobias, like agoraphobia, and avoid social situations for fear of triggering a panic attack. Cognitive-behavioral therapy can help change the way one thinks and reacts to situations that create fear. Relaxation and mindfulness exercises, such as deep breathing, meditation, yoga, massage, guided imagery, and progressive muscle relaxation, can help reduce the anxiety and stress that lead to a panic attack. Antidepressant and anti-anxiety medications can also control symptoms.
- American Psychiatric Association. Understanding Mental Disorders: Your Guide to DSM-5. 2015. American Psychiatric Publishing.
- Panic attack as a risk factor for severe psychopathology. American Journal of Psychiatry. December 2004;161(12):2207-2214 Goodwin R, Lieb R, Hoefler M, et al.
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
- University of Michigan/Michigan Medicine. Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder. Last updated June 17, 2016. Accessed May 4, 2017.
Last reviewed 05/17/2017