“Panic attack” is the term used to describe the sudden and acute onset of extreme anxiety and fear. These episodes may vary in duration, but a typical panic attack begins to subside after 10 to 30 minutes. The physical and emotional anxiety endured during a panic attack makes it a terrifying experience for the sufferer.
A patient may feel like a panic attack came on without any warning. Most attacks, though, do have a trigger. The trigger might be the anticipation that an upcoming event will be stressful.
For example, a person may have unhappy memories of a public speaking event or other situation that provokes fear. The person anticipates that this event, too, will go poorly. The memories of feeling stressed in the past reinforce the person’s fears about the future. Eventually, this prolonged period of heightened anxiety can trigger a panic attack.
According to Medicinenet, over one-fifth of Americans experience a panic attack at some point in their lives (2010). A much smaller portion of individuals experience panic attacks repeatedly, often leading to chronic fear of impending attacks. This condition is an anxiety disorder called “panic disorder.”
Recognizing a Panic Attack
Panic attack symptoms vary somewhat from person to person, but they always include intense emotional distress as well as physical symptoms of stress. Physical symptoms frequently include:
- Chest pain
- Difficulty swallowing
- Profuse sweating
- Rapid heart rate
- Shortness of breath.
Coping with a Panic Attack
Once a panic attack begins, its symptoms tend to escalate rapidly. Having a strategy in place for responding when an attack strikes is helpful for many sufferers. The following activities may be helpful in calming down from a panic attack:
- Asking someone for help
- Getting some fresh air
- Going for a walk
- Focusing on relaxing thoughts or activities
- Taking deep, slow breaths.
People who confuse the symptoms of a panic attack with those of a heart attack may seek immediate medical attention. Oftentimes, these patients are given anti-anxiety drugs called “benzodiazepines” to calm them down. However, these drugs are sedatives and can be habit-forming, so they’re not considered the best mechanism for coping with panic attacks and panic disorder. Long-term panic attack sufferers may be prescribed anti-depressants or treated with psychotherapy.
Analyze-More Publishing LLC. (n.d.). Help for panic attacks: What to do if you are having a panic attack. Retrieved July 14, 2010, from http://www.analyze-more.com/help-for-panic-attacks.html.
Dryden-Edwards, R. (2010). Panic attacks (panic disorder). Retrieved July 12, 2010, from http://www.medicinenet.com/panic_disorder/article.htm.
Mayo Clinic Staff. (2010). Panic attacks and panic disorder. Retrieved July 12, 2010, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/panic-attacks/DS00338.