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Anxiety & Panic Disorders Health Center

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Panic Attack Isn't Cowardice.

Trauma, Stress, and Fear Trigger Hard-Wired Responses

Trauma, Stress, and Panic continued...

Barlow says panic attacks occur in two different conditions. One is a "true reaction" to a traumatic event. The other is a "false reaction" where there is no obvious triggering event.

Barbara Rothbaum, PhD, director of the trauma and anxiety recovery program at Emory University in Atlanta, prefers a different term for what Pogany seems to have experienced.

"This soldier's case sounds more like a posttrauma reaction, which many people describe as a panic attack," Rothbaum tells WebMD. "Seeing something like that and having that kind of reaction is basically responding to a trauma."

Barlow and Rothbaum both say that this is a normal reaction to an abnormal event.

"Your emotions take over before your brain can react with rational thought," Barlow says. "In cases with a trigger, like this soldier, any time that something occurred that reminded him of it he will relive it and have flashbacks. That is a part of acute stress disorder. It is not uncommon immediately after major trauma if you were not prepared for it: 50% to 60% of the population would have this reaction."

Why do some people get panic attacks and not others? Barlow says we inherit the ways we respond to stress.

"If a person is under stress at work or home, or even under the stress of a positive thing like getting married, panic attacks can happen," he says. "If you have it within you that this is the way you react to stress, you may have one of these false alarms. Others might get irritable bowel syndrome instead. But all of these ways of reacting to stress run in families."

Panic vs. Anxiety

Rothbaum makes a distinction between panic attacks and anxiety attacks.

"A panic attack is very brief. Most people describe it as a wave coming over them," she says. "Most of the time it is over in a minute or two. There are a lot of physical symptoms: You get shortness of breath, lightheaded, dizzy. You feel your heart pounding, you may feel like choking, and there are a number of other unpleasant sensations. Then, afterwards, some people develop the fear of this fear, which can trigger new panic attacks. This is panic disorder."

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