Ever have a moment of intense anxiety and fear that something is so terribly wrong but you don’t know what? It comes on suddenly with a pounding heart and sweaty palms. It feels as if you can’t quite get enough air when you breathe. You may have experienced a panic attack.
What is a panic attack?
A panic attack is a sudden and intense surge of fear. These attacks can occur out of the blue and last for minutes to hours and cause physical symptoms such as shortness of breath, sweating, and heart palpitations. Some people experiencing an attack may even feel as if they are losing control. The feeling can be so overwhelming that many people mistake a panic attack for a heart attack.
Signs and symptoms of a panic attack
Panic attacks can happen anytime, anywhere, and without warning. Some research suggests they may result when our normal “fight or flight” responses go awry and cause false alarm situations in which real danger is absent. If you are having a panic attack, you may experience:
- Heart palpitations.
- Shortness of breath.
- Chest pain.
- Feeling dizzy.
- Fear of losing control.
When panic attacks are a part of a disorder?
Some people may have only one or two panic attacks during their lifetime, while others may suffer from them repeatedly. Frequent panic attacks with fear and worry about having another panic attack may be part of a panic disorder. A healthcare professional, such as your doctor, a psychiatrist, or a psychologist, can help diagnose a panic disorder.
What causes panic disorders?
The exact cause of the disorder is not fully understood, but according to the National Institute of Mental Health, people with panic disorders may misinterpret internal sensations as threats, which can cause a strong nervous system reaction.
Untreated, panic disorders may lead to other health complications, such as agoraphobia—a constant fear and avoidance of public places and crowds that can worsen social isolation.
What you can do about it?
Panic disorders are treatable in most cases with a combination of psychotherapy, behavioral therapy, and medication. If you think you (or a loved one) may be suffering from panic attacks or panic disorder, see a healthcare provider. This is important because if left untreated a panic disorder can have a negative impact on your mental health, quality of life, work or school productivity, and relationships.
Because stress and anxiety are associated with panic attacks, consider taking daily steps to reduce them. For example, try connecting with friends and family (anxiety thrives when you feel isolated). Other things include:
- Avoiding caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine.
- Getting a good night’s sleep.
- Being physically active.
- Practicing relaxation techniques like meditation and yoga.
Matthieu Boucher is a pharmacologist and the global lead for Psychiatry & Central Nervous System publications at Pfizer, Inc. Medical Affairs
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