What is a panic attack?
“Attack” is an apt word for the experience. Sudden severe anxiety can come out of nowhere or can precede a situation that is anticipated with trepidation, such as in the case of someone who must deliver a presentation and is tremendously uncomfortable speaking in front of others.
A panic attack is defined by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) as “the abrupt onset of intense fear or discomfort that reaches a peak within minutes” and includes at least four of the following symptoms:
- Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
- Trembling or shaking
- Sensation of shortness of breath or smothering
- Feelings of choking
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Nausea or abdominal distress
- Feeling dizzy, unsteady, light-headed, or faint
- Chills or heat sensations
- Paresthesia (numbness or tingling sensations)
- De-realization (feelings of unreality) or de-personalization (being detached from oneself) – the ADAA has published a podcast describing de-personalization disorder; click here to access.
- Fear of losing control or “going crazy”
- Fear of dying
A “limited-symptom panic attack” is one that involves fewer than four of the above symptoms. (4) Whether limited or full-blown, a panic attack occurs when there is a perceived threat but not necessarily a real one.
Panic attack symptoms usually reach their peak intensity within ten minutes of their onset and then slowly dissipate.
Reading through the list above, you can see how the symptoms mimic those of more serious conditions; so much so that many people who experience panic attacks go to hospital emergency rooms for treatment, thinking their lives are in danger.
What causes panic attacks?
Generally speaking, panic attacks can be part of a panic disorder or any number of other psychological disorders. They may be triggered by sensitivity to certain circumstances or experiences that cause discomfort or anxiety. Someone with an obsessive-compulsive disorder, for instance, may suffer a panic attack if s/he is prevented from acting on a personal compulsion.
A panic attack can occur when in a state of extreme anxiety or it can come out of the blue during a state of calm. It’s this nature of panic attacks that those who suffer from them find most disconcerting (and a cause for anxiety): while someone can try to avoid known triggers, there’s a constant fear of a panic episode occurring for seemingly no reason.