Understanding Panic Disorder (Panic Attack)

A panic attack is a sudden, intense "fight or flight" response. This is the body's way of preparing you to react to something you think is threatening. With it comes terror, physical symptoms, and a strong need to escape from wherever you are. If you have these attacks often, you have panic disorder. The attacks can be very frightening. You may be scared of having another one. You may even stay away from a place where you've had an attack. Some people become so afraid of having panic attacks, it's very hard for them to leave home (agoraphobia).

What does a panic attack feel like?

Most panic attacks start suddenly, for no clear reason. They last about 5 to 20 minutes. A panic attack can start at any time, even while you're sleeping. During the attack, you may have:

  • A sudden surge of anxiety, as if you just missed hitting someone with your car. But with a panic attack, you're anxious for no clear reason.
  • Physical symptoms, such as sweating, shortness of breath, a pounding heart, trembling, feeling like you're choking, chest pain, nausea, or dizziness.
  • A fear that you're having a heart attack, dying, or about to lose control.
  • A feeling that things happening around you are not real.

What to do during a panic attack

  • Remind yourself that your body is having a false alarm. Nothing bad will happen to you. You've survived attacks before, and you will this time, too.
  • Try not to think frightening thoughts about what might happen. You won't die or go crazy.
  • Don't fight your feelings. Let them come. Ride them out. Focus on a task like counting backward from 100. Think about someplace relaxing, such as a tropical island or quiet meadow. Ask your doctor or therapist to suggest other relaxation techniques.

Help to overcome the fear

  • Fear of a panic attack can make you miserable, but you can overcome it. Ask your doctor or therapist for help, and remember these tips:
    • Keep in mind that places and activities don't cause attacks. Separate the attack from the situation. Make an effort not to avoid the situation in the future.
    • Don't give in to the temptation to use alcohol or unprescribed drugs as an escape. In the long run, they will only add to your problems.

Treatment options

Don't feel like you have to just "live with" panic attacks. Help is absolutely available. Learn more about therapy for panic attacks.