What is a Panic Attack?

A panic attack is defined as a sudden feeling of acute and disabling anxiety. These attacks affect around 2.4 million US adults each year. Panic attacks are a symptom of panic disorder, which usually begins during the late teens and early adulthood. There is no known cause of panic disorder, but it is suspected that there is a combination of biological and environmental factors, such as family history, stressful life events, drug and alcohol abuse, and thinking patterns.

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Symptoms of Panic Attacks

Four or more of the following symptoms develop abruptly and reach a peak within minutes:

  • Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
  • Feeling of choking
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Abdominal distress
  • Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint
  • Derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself)
  • Fear of losing control or going crazy
  • Fear of dying
  • Paresthesias (numbness or tingling sensations)
  • Chills or heat sensations

While everyone responds to stress, someone who suffers from panic attacks may react to the same moderate pressure with an exaggerated physical reaction. This reaction can be explained as if they were about to be attacked by a wild animal - it is an adrenaline pumping fight-or-flight response. Because there is no real threat, these attacks can occur at anytime and anywhere. Overtime, people who have panic attacks develop a fear of having another attack. This fear severely effects daily activities and the overall quality of life.


Fortunately, panic attacks are one of the most treatable of the anxiety disorders. Talk therapy can help alter a person's response to stimuli. Therapy in combination with lifestyle changes, such as limiting caffeine and sticking to a daily exercise plan can help decrease panic symptoms. Click here to work with a therapist who specializes in reducing panic attacks.