Skip to content

Anxiety & Panic Disorders Health Center

Font Size

Understanding Panic Attack -- the Basics

What Are Panic Attacks?

Panic attacks are unmistakable. You're involved in some ordinary aspect of life when suddenly your heart begins to pound and you hyperventilate, sweat, and tremble. You fear you are having a heart attack, going crazy, or even dying. Then, 10 minutes or so later, it's gone. What just happened? You have had a panic attack. 

Panic attacks are fairly common, usually beginning between ages 15 and 25. If you have recurrent panic attacks, a persistent fear of subsequent attacks occurring, or if you change your behavior significantly because of such attacks, you have panic disorder, which affects nearly 1 in 20 adults according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Between attacks, sufferers live in dread of the next one.

Recommended Related to Anxiety Panic

Anxiety/Panic: Personal Stories

A psychologist helped reduce fear, relieve emotional pain, and control thoughts that influenced panic attacks. This link will take you to a web site that can help. Related Web Site: Carmen’s Story: Overcoming Panic Attacks  

Read the Anxiety/Panic: Personal Stories article > >

Many people with panic disorder relate an attack to what they were doing when it occurred. They may assume that the restaurant, elevator, or classroom caused the attack, and decide to avoid that situation. In these cases, panic disorder may lead to agoraphobia -- the fear of leaving home or being in public places. 

What Causes Panic Attacks?

The underlying cause of panic attacks and panic disorder is not clear. There is evidence of both a genetic and a biochemical basis. Some researchers believe that panic disorder may result from an oversensitivity in the brain to carbon dioxide and the triggering of a suffocation “false alarm” in the brain, leading to hyperventilation and panic. There is also an association between panic attacks and phobias, such as school phobia or agoraphobia, as well as with depression, alcohol abuse or cigarette smoking, suicide risk, and seasonal affective disorder -- a type of depression that occurs during winter months.  

Panic disorder may begin after a serious illness or accident, the death of a close friend, separation from the family, or the birth of a baby. Attacks may also accompany the use of mind-altering drugs. Most often, however, a panic attack comes "out of the blue." It may even begin during sleep.  

Some medical problems and medications can cause panic attacks, including some antidepressants. Panic disorder that begins after age 40 suggests depression or another underlying medical disorder.

 

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Joseph Goldberg, MD on April 12, 2014

Today on WebMD

Understanding Anxiety Prevention
Article
Unhappy couple
Article
 
Couple walking outdoors
SLIDESHOW
Man texting
Article
 
Phobias frightened eyes
Slideshow
Antidepressants
Video
 
organize
Article
Stressed businessman
HEALTH CHECK
 
Distressed teen girl in dramatic lighting
Article
Quit Smoking
Slideshow
 
Teen with OCD
Article
Too Scared Social Anxiety Disorder
VIDEO