Have you ever suddenly, for no reason, feared you were going to die, or sensed impending danger, or felt a detachment from yourself? These scary but very real experiences are symptoms of a panic attack. The intense fear experienced during these attacks also causes physical reactions in the body such as chest pain, nausea, dizziness, shortness of breath, sweating, numbness in extremities, and a racing heartbeat. Panic attacks share a lot of similar symptoms with anxiety attacks, but there are some key differences in how they occur.
Anxiety attacks are a response to a certain trigger or perceived threat. After a period of excessive worry, symptoms build up slowly but are generally not that severe. They can last for days or even months.
Panic attacks, on the other hand, happen very quickly. They can last a few minutes or up to a couple of hours and can either occur out of nowhere or be caused by a trigger such as stress, substance withdrawal, phobias, or remembering past traumas. They are much more intense and can make someone feel like they have lost control or that death is imminent.
People affected by panic attacks may have just one or two before the cause is resolved or may experience recurring attacks. Due to the intense fear they experience, some people live in constant fear of having another attack, which is the definition of panic disorder. But panic attacks can result from other psychological disorders as well, like social anxiety, phobias, or obsessive-compulsive disorders.
Scientists are still unsure of the exact cause of panic disorder, some theorize it may be the result of an overactive amygdala signalling for the release of adrenaline. Adrenaline causes several physiological changes. It increases your heart rate to send more blood to your muscles, makes you breathe faster and more shallow to create more oxygen and make you more alert, and releases blood sugar and fats to give you more energy. Together, these changes prepare you to deal with a life threatening situation and are often thought of as your ‘fight or flight’ response. The resulting physical reactions are similar to what happens during a panic attack. Which is why scientists believe that the ‘fight or flight’ response is involved.
If you do suffer from panic attacks, you are not alone. An estimated 4.7% of adults in the U.S. above the age of 18 will experience panic disorder in their lifetime. And of adolescents between the age of 13 and 18, 2.3% will. That is about 12 million adults and teens in the United States alone who will suffer from panic attacks. The good news? Panic disorder is treatable. Therapy and medication help reduce the frequency and intensity of panic attacks. A 1992 study of the effect of cognitive-behavior therapy found that 82% of patients were panic free after 8 weeks of treatment. And 6 months later, 63% were considered in recovery.
So, if you are suffering from panic attacks or a related illness, don’t be afraid to reach out for help. This condition does not need to be debilitating. People who experience panic attacks are normal, everyday people who are able to work at their jobs and live their lives.