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.
Normal life includes some anxiety and fear. In a stressful situation, your brain triggers a flood of chemicals into the bloodstream. Your heart beats faster; your breath becomes shallow and rapid; muscles tense; your mind goes on full alert. It's all part of the human's innate reaction to a threat: You're ready to flee or fight.
Sometimes anxiety and fear linger on and on. The feelings can be overwhelming. When they interfere with normal activities, there's a problem. Doctors call this kind of problem...
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.