Panic attacks can be difficult to identify. If you’re concerned you or a loved one is struggling with high levels of anxiety, this page outlines the warning signs, symptoms, and causes of this panic attacks.
What are the Signs and Symptoms of Panic Attacks?
A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear that occurs for no apparent reason. Panic attacks trigger strong physical reactions that result in frightening symptoms. A person experiencing an episode might confuse signs of panic attacks with symptoms of a heart attack or stroke. Panic attack sufferers report feeling a complete loss of control as symptoms peak, even feeling like they are dying.
Panic attack symptoms can include:
- rapid heart rate
- shortness of breath
- hot flashes
- abdominal cramping
- chest pain
- tightness in your throat
- trouble swallowing
- sense of impending death
- tingling in your hands or feet
Loved ones or co-workers may notice a panic attack sufferer experiencing any number of signs of an oncoming episode. Panic attack symptoms usually peak within ten minutes and usually last about half an hour. It is possible for a panic attack last hours or, on rare occasions, up to a day. A person may feel fatigued and worn out after a panic attack subsides.
What are the Effects of Panic Attacks?
Panic attacks can strike at almost any time without warning, driving the car, at the mall, in the middle of a business meeting, or even when sound asleep. A person may fear having a panic attack so much that she goes to great lengths to avoid situations where they may occur. She may even be unable to leave her home (progressing to agoraphobia), because no place feels safe. Not surprisingly, living with this constant fear and anxiety can trigger or worsen symptoms of depression, addiction, or an eating disorder.
A panic attack takes a very powerful emotional toll on the person affected. In addition to the overwhelming sense of fear in that is its primary symptom, the person can also be subject to more tangible symptoms associated with the fear of physical loss of control, perceived heart attack or even possible death. The realness, immediacy and overwhelming intensity of her feelings during these moments of helplessness and desperation cannot be overemphasized.
Having one or two panic attacks over the course of a lifetime may not be cause for concern. However, if a person has panic attacks frequently, it could mean that she has panic disorder, a type of chronic anxiety disorder. Panic disorders and anxiety disorders are serious medical conditions that have the potential to dramatically diminish the sufferer’s quality of life if they are not treated effectively.
One of the worst side effects of panic attacks is the intense fear that follows of having another panic attack in the future. The more important an event or experience in the sufferers’ life, the greater anxiety they may feel about it being undermined by an episode. This compounding sense of worry may aggravate the symptoms of other mood disorders, depression, eating disorders or addictive disorders. In some cases, the struggle to contain the fear of panic attacks or the depression that results may lead the sufferer to drug addiction, alcoholism or prescription drug abuse.
What are the Causes of Panic Attacks and Panic Disorders?
Panic attacks were once dismissed as a poor response to nerves or stress. Today, they’re widely recognized as a serious medical condition that requires careful assessment of physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms. Panic disorders are accepted as serious, chronic medical diseases that need treatment by a psychiatrist experienced with anxiety disorders and common co-occurring disorders.
The causes of panic attacks or panic disorder remain under investigation by the medical community. Factors that may play a role include
- Environmental stress
- Adaptive changes in brain function resulting from other medical or psychiatric conditions
Some research suggests that the body’s natural fight-or-flight response to danger is involved in panic attacks. For example, in the situation of an attack by a wild animal, a person’s body reacts instinctively. Heart rate and breathing speed up as the body prepares itself for a life-threatening situation. Many of the same reactions occur in a panic attack. What is currently not known is why a panic attack occurs when there’s no obvious danger present.
Panic attacks and panic disorders are serious medical conditions that should be treated by an experienced psychiatrist. Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center is a leader in treating women and adolescent girls for anxiety disorders, anorexia, bulimia, and other co-occurring disorders. Learn more about treatment for panic disorders.