Understanding Panic Attacks
People with anxiety disorders feel extremely fearful and unsure. Most people feel anxious about something for a short time now and again, but people with anxiety disorders feel this way most of the time. Their fears and worries make it hard for them to do everyday tasks. About 18% of American adults have anxiety disorders. Children also may have them.
Treatment is available for people with anxiety disorders. Researchers are also looking for new treatments that will help relieve symptoms.
Panic disorder is one kind of anxiety disorder.
People with panic disorder have sudden and repeated attacks of fear that last for several minutes, but sometimes symptoms may last longer. These are called panic attacks. Panic attacks are characterized by a fear of certain disaster or a fear of losing control. A person may also have a strong physical reaction. It may feel like having a heart attack. Panic attacks can occur at any time, and many people worry about and dread the possibility of having another attack.
A person with panic disorder may become discouraged and feel ashamed because he or she cannot carry out normal routines like going to the grocery store, or driving. Having panic disorder can also interfere with school or work.
Panic attacks are characterized by a fear of certain disaster or a fear of losing control.
What are the symptoms of panic disorder?
People with panic disorder have:
- sudden and repeated attacks of fear.
- a feeling of being out of control during a panic attack.
- a feeling that things are not real.
- an intense worry about when the next attack will happen.
- a fear or avoidance of places where panic attacks have occurred in the past.
- physical symptoms including:
- pounding heart,
- weakness, faintness, or dizziness,
- feeling a hot flush or a cold chill,
- tingly or numb hands,
- chest pain,
- feeling nauseous or stomach pain.
If you or someone you know develops these symptoms, talk to a doctor or health care provider. There is help available.
When does panic disorder start?
Panic disorder often begins in the late teens or early adulthood. More women than men have panic disorder. But not everyone who experiences panic attacks will develop panic disorder.
Why do people get panic disorder?
Panic disorder sometimes runs in families, but no one knows for sure why some people have it, while others don't. When chemicals in the brain are not at a certain level it can cause a person to have panic disorder. That is why medications often help with symptoms because they help the brain chemicals stay at the correct levels.
To improve treatment, scientists are studying how well different medicines and therapies work. In one kind of research, people with panic disorder choose to take part in a clinical trial to help doctors find out what treatments work best for most people, or what works best for different symptoms. Usually, the treatment is free. Scientists are learning more about how the brain works so that they can discover new treatments.
Is there help?
There is help for people with panic disorder. In fact, it is one of the most treatable anxiety disorders. First, a person should visit a doctor or health care provider to discuss the symptoms or feelings he or she is having. The list of symptoms in this brochure can be a useful guide when talking with the doctor. The doctor will do an examination to make sure that another physical problem is not causing the symptoms. The doctor may make a referral to a specialist such as a psychiatrist, psychologist or licensed social worker.
Medications can help reduce the severity and frequency of panic attacks, but they may take several weeks to start working. A doctor can prescribe medications. Different types of medications are used to treat panic disorder. They are antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs, and beta blockers. These same medications are used to treat other types of disorders as well.
Psychotherapy, or "talk therapy" with a specialist can help people learn to control the symptoms of a panic attack. Therapy can be with a licensed social worker, counselor, psychologist or psychiatrist. There is no cure for panic disorder, but most people can live a normal life when they receive treatment with medicine and/or therapy.
If you know someone with symptoms of panic disorder, talk to him or her about seeing a doctor. Offer to go with your friend to the doctor's appointment for support.
Panic disorder is one of the most treatable anxiety disorders.
Adapted from NIH Publication No. 08-4679
Page last reviewed by NIH September 22, 2010