This article originally appeared in Nursing2013 2013;43(12):36. as part of the Patient Education Series.
What Is a Panic Attack?
A panic attack is a sudden feeling of great anxiety and fear. It causes strong physical reactions even though no real danger exists. It can make you feel like you're having a heart attack or even dying.
A panic attack can happen anywhere at any time. You can even have one when you're asleep. For most people, a panic attack lasts 20 to 30 minutes.
The cause of panic attacks is unknown. However, some factors could make you more likely to have one. These include:
* a family history of panic attacks
* a major change in your life (the death or serious illness of a loved one, having a baby, changing jobs, getting married)
* a lot of stress in your life
* a history of childhood physical or sexual abuse
* going through a painful event such as an accident or sexual assault
* certain medical conditions, such as mitral valve prolapse (when one of the heart valves doesn't close properly), problems with your thyroid gland, or low blood sugar
* use of caffeine or drugs like speed or cocaine
* withdrawal from medicine, recreational drugs, or alcohol.
Having a lot of panic attacks on a regular basis that aren't caused by medical conditions or substance abuse can lead to a condition called panic disorder. People with this disorder may avoid leaving their homes because they fear having another panic attack. This can severely affect their quality of life.
How Will I Know If I'm Having a Panic Attack?
During a panic attack you may experience one or more of the following:
* shortness of breath
* a feeling of being smothered
* a racing heart
* shaking or trembling
* vomiting or upset stomach
* chest pain or discomfort
* feeling like you're choking
* feeling dizzy or like you're going to faint
* hot or cold flashes
* numbness or tingling feelings
* feeling “unreal” or detached
* fear of losing control, going crazy, or dying.
If you have any of these signs and symptoms, get medical help as soon as possible. You want to make sure you don't have a serious health problem.
Panic attacks may get worse without treatment. It's important to get checked out by your healthcare provider to see what's causing them.
Can My Healthcare Provider Treat My Panic Attacks?
Your healthcare provider will try to figure out if you have panic attacks, panic disorder, or another medical condition. Thyroid or heart problems can look like panic disorder. You'll need a complete physical exam, blood tests, and heart tests such as an electrocardiogram (EKG). Your healthcare provider will talk to you about stress, your fears, and other subjects to determine the best treatment for you.
Panic attacks are usually treated with psychotherapy (“talk therapy”) and medicine. Talk therapy can help you understand your panic attacks and teach you how to cope with them. Some medicines can also help reduce panicky feelings.
How Can I Avoid Getting Panic Attacks?
Be sure to follow your healthcare provider's treatment plan. Learn as much as you can about anxiety, panic attacks, and panic disorder. This will help you recognize the signs of a panic attack. Avoid smoking and caffeine, which can bring on panic attacks in some people. Learn deep-breathing exercises, which can lessen some symptoms of panic attacks. Yoga, meditation, and muscle relaxation exercises can help you cope with stress in your life. They may also help prevent panic attacks.
© 2014 Wolters Kluwer Health | Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.