If you’ve ever had a sudden feeling of fear, danger, or doom that made your heart race, choked off your breathing, or made you want to run away without knowing which way to turn, you may have experienced a panic attack.
Panic attacks, also known as anxiety attacks, are one of several types of anxiety disorders that affect millions of Americans every year. Each anxiety disorder has a specific set of triggers and symptoms. The disorder that can lead to panic attacks is known as panic disorder.
In the United States women are twice as likely as men to have panic disorder. All together, an estimated 6 million Americans have the condition, which normally develops in early adulthood. Panic attacks can occur with no warning and may even start while you are asleep.
People who experience seemingly random panic attacks often live with an obsessive fear that another attack is about to occur. This fear of another attack can limit their regular activities as they become too afraid of an attack to risk leaving home or participate in normal events. (ADAA)
Panic disorder is a recognizable medical condition that can be effectively treated. But many people do not seek medical help because they are afraid they will be told they are “imagining things” or because they are embarrassed. In order to be diagnosed as a medical condition, panic attacks must have a rapid onset that reaches a peak of intense fear within a few minutes.
Attacks must include at least four of these symptoms:
• Feelings of doom or immediate danger
• Feeling the need to escape
• Feeling that things are unreal, that your own behavior is strange, or a lost sense of identity
• Rapid or uneven heart beat
• Chest pain or tightness
• Shortness of breath or feeling smothered
• Feeling of choking
• Dizziness or feeling lightheaded
• Feeling that parts of your body are tingling
• Feeling of chills or heat flush
• Fear of losing control
• Fear of dying
Anxiety attacks may occur randomly with no apparent trigger or may be a response to a specific stressful event or experience. Some people recognize that they are more likely to experience panic attacks in certain locations, such as an elevator, or may be able to connect the attack to a traumatic experience such as the recent or imminent death of a loved one.
Panic attacks that are caused by panic disorder are less likely to be related to a trigger event. People who have panic disorder may also be more likely to have other mental or physical disorders such as depression, irritable bowel syndrome, or substance abuse.
If you have had panic attacks for no apparent reason or if you have questions about panic disorder talk to your health care provider. Panic disorder can often be treated successfully using medications and other methods.
Anxiety Disorders Association of America. Panic Disorder & Agoraphobia. Web. January 4, 2012.
Medicine Net. Definition of Panic disorder. Web. January 4, 2012.
Medline Plus. Panic Disorder. Web. January 4, 2012.
Reviewed January 4, 2012
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith