Skip to content

Anxiety & Panic Disorders Health Center

Select An Article
Font Size

Under Pressure: What Is a Panic Attack?

Panic attacks -- a terrifying experience -- is a symptom of panic disorder, which fortunately is one of the most treatable of the anxiety disorders.

WebMD Magazine - Feature

A man in his mid-40s is rushed to an emergency room. He is sweating, his heart is racing, and he can't catch his breath. He and his wife are convinced he is having a heart attack. He could be-only, this time, the ER doctors tell him his heart is just fine. What he's having is a panic attack.

Though no one should ever ignore heart attack symptoms or assume one is having a panic attack instead, thousands of people each year share this man's experience.

Recommended Related to Anxiety Panic

Understanding Phobias -- Treatment

How well phobia treatment will work depends partly on the severity of the phobia. Though some phobias are never completely cured, therapy can help many people learn to function effectively. Types of therapy include: Desensitization Flooding -- prolonged exposure to a fearful situation or experience Graded exposures Biofeedback Attending phobia clinics and support groups has also helped many people overcome their fears. In addition, medication may help some people overcome...

Read the Understanding Phobias -- Treatment article > >

Panic attacks are truly terrifying and can happen without warning or reason, causing sudden fear and extreme nervousness for 10 minutes or more. Physical symptoms intensify the attack: sweating, racing heart, rapid pulse, feeling faint or as if one is choking, and-perhaps worst of all-the sense of "going crazy."

These attacks are a symptom of panic disorder, a type of anxiety disorder that affects some 2.4 million U.S. adults. The disorder most often begins during the late teens and early adulthood and strikes twice as many American women as men. No one knows what causes panic disorder, though researchers suspect a combination of biological and environmental factors, including family history (panic disorder seems to run in families), stressful life events, drug and alcohol abuse, and thinking patterns that exaggerate normal physical reactions.

What happens, exactly? "We all physically respond to stress," says Barbara O. Rothbaum, PhD, psychiatry professor and director, Trauma and Anxiety Recovery Program, at Atlanta's Emory University School of Medicine. "You might feel anxious about work-related problems, taking a big exam, or making an important decision. But someone who suffers from panic disorder may react to those same moderate pressures with an exaggerated physical reaction-as if he or she were about to be attacked by a wild tiger or fall from a great height. It's full-on, adrenaline-pumping, fight-or-flight response."

For this very reason, Rothbaum says, panic attacks are doubly frightening. "Because there is no real danger that provokes them, these episodes can happen anytime, anywhere"-including while walking down the street, dining out with a group of friends, grocery shopping-even sleeping, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Next Article:

Today on WebMD

young leukemia patient
Unhappy couple
embarrassed woman
Phobias frightened eyes
stressed boy in classroom
Distressed teen girl in dramatic lighting
man hiding with phone
chain watch