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Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder

Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

A panic attack is a sudden surge of overwhelming anxiety and fear. The heart pounds and it's impossible to breathe. A person feels like they're dying or going crazy. Left untreated, panic attacks can lead to panic disorder and other problems. They may even cause the person to withdraw from normal activities. But panic attacks can be cured and the sooner you seek help, the better. With treatment, you can reduce or eliminate the symptoms of panic and regain control of your life.

In many cases, panic attacks strike out of the blue, without any warning. Often, there is no clear reason for the attack. They may even occur when the person is relaxed or asleep.

A panic attack may happen just once, but many people experience panic attacks repeatedly. Recurrent panic attacks are often triggered by a specific situation, such as crossing a bridge or speaking in public — especially if that situation has caused a panic attack before. Usually, the situation is one in which they feel endangered and unable to escape.

It is possible to experience one or more panic attacks, yet be otherwise perfectly happy and healthy. Or panic attacks may occur as part of another disorder, such as panic disorder, social phobia, or depression. Regardless of the cause, panic attacks are treatable. There are many effective treatments and coping strategies you can use to deal with the symptoms.

Symptoms of a panic attack

  • Shortness of breath or hyperventilation
  • Heart palpitations or a racing heart
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Choking feeling
  • Feeling unreal or detached from your surroundings
  • Sweating
  • Nausea or upset stomach
  • Feeling dizzy, light-headed, or faint
  • Numbness or tingling sensations
  • Hot or cold flashes
  • Fear of dying, losing control, or going crazy

Many people experience panic attacks without further episodes or complications. There is little reason to worry if you've had just one or two panic attacks. However, some people who've experienced panic attacks go on to develop panic disorder. Panic disorder is characterized by repeated panic attacks, combined with major changes in behavior or persistent anxiety over having further attacks.

Signs and symptoms of panic disorder

You may be suffering from panic disorder if you:

  • Experience frequent, unexpected panic attacks that aren't tied to a specific situation
  • Worry a lot about having another panic attack
  • Are behaving differently because of the panic attacks, such as avoiding places where you've previously panicked

While a single panic attack may only last a few minutes, the effects of the experience can leave a lasting imprint. If you have panic disorder, the recurrent panic attacks take an emotional toll. The memory of the intense fear and terror that you felt during the attacks can negatively impact your self-confidence and cause serious disruption to your everyday life.

Causes of panic attacks and panic disorder

Although the exact causes of panic attacks and panic disorder are unclear, the tendency to have panic attacks runs in families. There also appears to be a connection with major life transitions such as graduating from college and entering the workplace, getting married, and having a baby. Severe stress, such as the death of a loved one, divorce, or job loss can also trigger a panic attack.

Panic attacks can also be caused by medical conditions and other physical causes. If you're suffering from symptoms of panic, it's important to see a doctor to rule out the following possibilities:

  • Mitral valve prolapse, a minor cardiac problem that occurs when one of the heart's valves doesn't close correctly.
  • Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid gland)
  • Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar)
  • Stimulant use (amphetamines, cocaine, caffeine)
  • Medication withdrawal

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