Panic attack and panic disorder: What you need to know

A panic attack happens because of heightened anxiety. Anyone can have a panic attack, but it is also a hallmark symptom of panic disorder. It can lead to a rapid heartbeat, rapid breathing, sweating, shaking, and other symptoms.

In people who do not have an anxiety disorder, a panic attack can happen if an event triggers anxiety.

A panic attack and panic disorder can affect anyone of any ethnic background, but it is more common among women than men.

Symptoms

[panic can lead to lightheadedness]
Panic can lead to lightheadedness.

A panic attack often stems from a direct trigger or incident, but they can also begin suddenly and randomly with no obvious cause. They are believed to come from an evolutionary response to danger.

Having a panic attack is said to be one of the most intensely frightening, upsetting and uncomfortable experiences in a person’s life.

The American Psychological Association (APA), notes that an attack may only last for 15 seconds, but symptoms can to continue for about 30 minutes or longer, and sometimes for hours.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, a panic attack involves at least four of the following symptoms:

Chest pain and discomfort

Chills or feeling unusually hot

Derealization, or feeling detached

Dizziness and feeling lightheaded

Experiencing a strong, sudden fear of dying

Fear of losing control or feeling as if a person is “going crazy”

Feelings of choking

Heart palpitations, irregular heartbeat, or rapid heart rate

Nausea and stomach upset

Numbness or tingling

Shaking or trembling

Sweating

Trouble breathing, feeling as if a person is smothering

Panic attacks can also be associated with agoraphobia, a fear of places from which the individual considers to be dangerous, or difficult to escape from. People who have experienced a panic attack often say after that they felt trapped.

Sometimes the symptoms associated with a panic attack can mirror other medical conditions. Examples of these include lung disorders, heart conditions, or thyroid problems.

Sometimes a person may seek emergency medical attention for a heart attack, yet anxiety is the true cause. Panic attacks are highly treatable and don’t mean that a person is a hypochondriac or mentally ill.

What is panic disorder?

Panic disorder is an underlying medical condition, and panic attacks are a symptoms. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, an estimated 6 million Americans have a panic disorder.

Women are most likely to experience the condition and it most commonly occurs when a person in early adulthood, from ages 18 to 25 years.

The condition occurs when a person has experienced multiple panic attacks and also lives in fear of having another panic attack. While everyone can experience a panic attack in their lifetime, those with a panic disorder experience recurrent attacks.

The fear they may experience another attack can cause them to withdraw from friends and family. They may fear going outside or in public places. A panic disorder can severely affect a person’s quality of life and should be treated.

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Causes

Experts say that anxiety and panic, to a certain extent, are a necessary part of our survival. However, when levels become so high that they undermine regular thought processes, a person naturally becomes afraid.

When the brain receives a surge of nervous signals designed to warn of imminent danger, the amygdala, a part of the brain, is activated. The amygdala controls a person’s anxious response.

Some people’s amygdala reacts with anxiety when there is no imminent danger, making it much more likely that they will experience high anxiety and panic attacks.

When a person is given the signal to react with anxiety, they produce adrenaline, also known as epinephrine.

Adrenaline is released by the adrenal glands. Some people call adrenaline the “fright or flight” hormone. A release of adrenaline into the system can raise the heartbeat, cause sweating, churn the stomach, and provoke irregular breathing. These are all characteristics of a panic attack.

If there is no imminent danger and the system is loaded with adrenaline, that hormone will not be used up for running away. The buildup can cause a panic attack.

A number of risk factors can increase the likelihood a person will have panic attacks and panic disorder.

Genetics may play a role. If a person has a close family member, such as a parent or sibling, with panic disorder, they may be more likely to have a panic attack.

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