Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder

Reviewed/Revised Dec 2022
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What is a panic attack?

A panic attack is when all of a sudden you get very scared and anxious. You might also have chest pain and choking and feel sick to your stomach, dizzy, and short of breath. A panic attack lasts a short time.

  • Panic attacks may be triggered by something scary, like seeing a snake, or they may just come on their own

  • During a panic attack, you may think you're having a serious medical problem, like a heart attack or stroke

  • Although panic attacks are uncomfortable and scary, they aren’t dangerous

  • Panic attacks are common—each year, about 1 in 10 adults have a panic attack

What is panic disorder?

Panic disorder is when you keep having panic attacks and also:

  • Worry a lot about having more attacks

  • Worry that you're going crazy or going to lose control of yourself

  • Avoid going places or doing your usual activities because you think you might have an attack

What causes panic attacks?

Panic attacks can be triggered by something you're scared of. For example, if you're afraid of snakes, you might have a panic attack when you see a snake. But panic attacks sometimes happen for no apparent reason. Also, doctors aren't sure why some people get panic attacks when something scary happens and some people don't.

What are the symptoms of a panic attack?

Although panic attacks are uncomfortable and scary, they aren’t dangerous. Symptoms start quickly, peak within 10 minutes, and go away minutes later.

The main symptoms are:

  • Sudden intense fear and discomfort

People also have at least 4 of these other symptoms:

  • Chest pain or discomfort

  • Feeling like you’re choking

  • Dizziness or faintness

  • Feeling sick to your stomach, or having a stomachache or diarrhea

  • Numbness or tingling in lips and fingers

  • Feeling your heart pounding or beating fast

  • Feeling short of breath or like you’re being smothered

  • Sweating

  • Trembling or shaking

  • Fear that you're dying

  • Fear that you're going crazy or losing control

  • Feeling like things around you aren’t real

How can doctors tell if I have panic attacks?

Your doctor will check for a physical cause of your symptoms. For example, if you have chest pain, doctors will check your heart. If your symptoms don’t have a physical cause, doctors will suspect panic attacks.

How do doctors treat panic attacks or panic disorder?

Some people get better without treatment. For others, panic attacks come and go over years. Treatment for panic attacks and panic disorder may include:

  • Therapy, such as exposure therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, or supportive psychotherapy

  • Antidepressant medicines

  • Antianxiety medicines

Exposure therapy helps lessen the fear by:

  • Exposing you gradually and repeatedly to whatever triggers your attacks until you’re comfortable with it

Cognitive-behavioral therapy teaches:

  • Not to avoid situations that cause panic attacks

  • To recognize when your fears aren’t realistic

  • To respond instead with slow, controlled breathing or other relaxation techniques

Supportive psychotherapy includes education and counseling to give you:

  • General information about the disorder and its treatment

  • Realistic hope for improvement

  • Support that comes from a trusting relationship with a doctor

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