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Anxiety & Panic Disorders Health Center

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Anxiety - Topic Overview

A panic attack is a sudden feeling of extreme anxiety or intense fear without a clear cause or when there is no danger. Panic attacks are common. They sometimes occur in otherwise healthy people. An attack starts suddenly and usually lasts from 5 to 20 minutes but may last even longer, up to a few hours. You have the most anxiety about 10 minutes after the attack starts.

Symptoms include feelings of dying or losing control of yourself, rapid breathing (hyperventilation), numbness or tingling of the hands or lips, and a racing heart. You may feel dizzy, sweaty, or shaky. Other symptoms include trouble breathing, chest pain or tightness, and an irregular heartbeat. These symptoms come on suddenly and without warning.

Sometimes symptoms of a panic attack are so intense that the person fears he or she is having a heart attack. Many of the symptoms of a panic attack can occur with other illnesses, such as hyperthyroidism, coronary artery disease, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). A complete medical examination may be needed before an anxiety disorder can be diagnosed.

People who have repeated unexpected panic attacks and worry about the attacks are said to have a panic disorder.

Phobias are extreme and irrational fears that interfere with daily life. People with phobias have fears that are out of proportion to real danger. And although these people are aware that their fears are not rational, they are not able to control them.

Phobias are common and are sometimes present with other conditions, such as panic disorder or Tourette's disorder. Most people deal with phobias by avoiding the situation or object that causes them to feel panic (avoidance behavior).

A phobic disorder occurs when the avoidance behavior becomes so extreme that it interferes with your ability to participate in your daily activities. There are three main types of phobic disorders:

  • Fear of being alone or in public places where help might not be available or escape is impossible (agoraphobia)
  • Fear of situations where the individual might be exposed to criticism by others (social phobia).
  • Fear of specific things (specific phobia).

Check your symptoms to decide if and when you should see a doctor.

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: May 09, 2013
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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