Panic attacks involve sudden feelings of terror that strike without warning. These episodes can occur at any time, even during sleep. People experiencing a panic attack may believe they are dying or going crazy. The fear and terror that a person experiences during a panic attack are not in proportion to the true situation and may be unrelated to what is happening around them.
You may also think you're having a heart attack, and it's true that some of the symptoms can be similar. However, most people having a panic attack have had one before, triggered by a similar event or situation.
The chest pain of a panic attack usually stays in the mid-chest area (the pain of a heart attack commonly moves toward the left arm or jaw). You may also have rapid breathing, rapid heartbeat, and fear. Panic attacks come and disappear suddenly, but leave you exhausted.
If you suddenly have four or more of these symptoms, you may be having a panic attack:
- Sudden high anxiety with or without a cause
- A "racing" heart
- Feeling weak, faint, or dizzy
- Tingling or numbness in the hands and fingers
- Sense of terror, or impending doom or death
- Feeling sweaty or having chills
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Breathing difficulties, including a "smothering" sensation or shortness of breath
- A feeling of choking
- Feeling a loss of control
- A sense of unreality
- A fear of going crazy or losing control
- A fear of dying
How Long Do Panic Attacks Last?
Panic attacks are generally brief, lasting less than 10 minutes, although some of the symptoms may last longer. An isolated panic attack, while extremely unpleasant, is not uncommon or life-threatening.
Panic attacks can be a symptom of other anxiety disorders, and people who’ve had one panic attack are at greater risk for another compared to those who’ve never had one. Panic attacks and panic disorder are not the same thing. When the attacks happen repeatedly and you worry about having more episodes, you may have panic disorder.
What Else Should I Know About Panic Disorder?
People with panic disorder may be extremely anxious and fearful, since they are unable to predict when the next episode will occur. Panic disorder is fairly common and affects about 6 million adults in the U.S. Women are twice as likely as men to develop the condition, and its symptoms usually begin in early adulthood.
It is not clear what causes panic disorder. In many people who have the biological vulnerability to panic attacks, they may develop in association with major life changes (such as getting married, having a child, starting a first job, etc.) and major lifestyle stressors. There is also some evidence that suggests that the tendency to develop panic disorder may run in families. People who suffer from panic disorder are also more likely than others to suffer from depression, attempt suicide, or to abuse alcohol or drugs.
Fortunately, panic disorder is a treatable condition. Psychotherapy and medications have both been used, either singly or in combination, for successful treatment of panic disorder. If medication is necessary, your doctor may prescribe anti-anxiety medications, certain antidepressants or sometimes certain anticonvulsant drugs that also have anti-anxiety properties, or a class of heart medications known as beta-blockers to help prevent or control the episodes in panic disorder.