| Home | Article Database | Resources | Tools & Just for Fun | Search HY |
"All of a sudden, I felt a tremendous wave of fear for no reason at
all. My heart was pounding, my chest hurt, and it was getting harder to
breathe. I thought I was going to die."
"I'm so afraid. Every time I start to go out, I get that awful
feeling in the pit of my stomach and I'm terrified that another panic
attack is coming."
What Are the Symptoms of a Panic Attack?
As described above, the symptoms of a panic attack appear suddenly,
without any apparent cause. They may include:
- Racing or pounding heartbeat
- Chest pains
- Dizziness, lightheadedness, nausea
- Difficulty breathing
- Tingling or numbness in the hands
- Flushes or chills
- Dreamlike sensations or perceptual distortions
- Terror--a sense that something unimaginably horrible is about to occur
and one is powerless to prevent it
- Fear of losing control and doing something embarrassing
- Fear of dying
A panic attack typically lasts for several minutes and is one of
the most distressing conditions that a person can experience. Most who
have one attack will have others. When someone has repeated attacks, or
feels severe anxiety about having another attack, he or she is said to
have panic disorder.
What is Panic Disorder?
Panic disorder is a serious health problem in this country. At
least 1.6 percent of adult Americans, or 3 million people, will have
panic disorder at some time in their lives. The disorder is strikingly
different from other types of anxiety in that panic attacks are so
sudden, appear to be unprovoked, and are often disabling.
Once someone has had a panic attack--for example, while driving,
shopping in a crowded store, or riding in an elevator-- he or she may
develop irrational fears, called phobias, about these situations and
begin to avoid them. Eventually, the pattern of avoidance and level of
anxiety about another attack may reach the point where the individual
with panic disorder may be unable to drive or even step out of the
house. At this stage, the person is said to have panic disorder with
agoraphobia. Thus panic disorder can have as serious an impact on a
person's daily life as other major illnesses--unless the individual
receives effective treatment.
Is Panic Disorder Serious?
Yes, panic disorder is real and potentially disabling, but it can
be controlled with specific treatments. Because of the disturbing
symptoms that accompany panic disorder, it may be mistaken for heart
disease or some other life-threatening medical illness. People
frequently go to hospital emergency rooms when they are having a panic
attack, and extensive medical tests may be performed to rule out these
Medical personnel generally attempt to reassure the panic attack
patient that he or she is not in great danger. But these efforts at
reassurance can sometimes add to the patient's difficulties: If the
doctors use expressions such as "nothing serious," "all in your head,"
or "nothing to worry about," this may give the incorrect impression that
there is no real problem and that treatment is not possible or
What is the Treatment for Panic Disorder?
Thanks to research, there are a variety of treatments available,
including several effective medications, and also specific forms of
psychotherapy. Often, a combination of psychotherapy and medications
produces good results. Improvement is usually noticed in a fairly short
period of time--about 6 to 8 weeks. Thus appropriate treatment for panic
disorder can prevent panic attacks or at least substantially reduce
their severity and frequency-bringing significant relief to 70 to 90
percent of people with panic disorder.
In addition, people with panic disorder may need treatment for
other emotional problems. Depression has often been associated with
panic disorder, as have alcohol and drug abuse. Recent research also
suggests that suicide attempts are more frequent in people with panic
disorder. Fortunately, these problems associated with panic disorder can
be overcome effectively, just like panic disorder itself.
Tragically, many people with panic disorder do not seek or receive
What Happens if Panic Disorder is Not Treated?
Panic disorder tends to continue for months or years. While it
typically begins in young adulthood, in some people the symptoms may
arise earlier or later in life. If left untreated, it may worsen to the
point where the person's life is seriously affected by panic attacks and
by attempts to avoid or conceal them. In fact, many people have had
problems with friends and family or lost jobs while struggling to cope
with panic disorder. There may be periods of spontaneous improvement in
the disorder, but it does not usually go away unless the person receives
treatments designed specifically to help people with panic disorder.
What Causes Panic Disorder?
According to one theory of panic disorder, the body's normal "alarm
system"--the set of mental and physical mechanisms that allows a person
to respond to a threat-tends to be triggered unnecessarily, when there
is no danger. Scientists don't know exactly why this happens, or why
some people are more susceptible to the problem than others. Panic
disorder has been found to run in families, and this may mean that
inheritance (genes) plays a strong role in determining who will get it.
However, many people who have no family history of the disorder develop
it. Often the first attacks are triggered by physical illnesses, a major
life stress, or perhaps medications that increase activity in the part
of the brain involved in fear reactions.
Where Can I Get More Information?
For more information about panic disorder and other anxiety disorders, write:
The Anxiety Disorders Education Program, National Institute of Mental Health
6001 Executive Blvd.
Room 8184, MSC 9663
Bethesda, MD 20892-9663
Or call 301-443-4513.
Publications and other information are also available online from the NIMH Website at http://www.nimh.nih.gov or by calling toll-free 1-88-88-ANXIETY (1-888-826-9438).