A panic attack is an episode of intense fear that occur suddenly. It triggers extreme physical reactions even without any apparent cause or danger. These episodes can be excessively frightening. If you suffer from a panic attack, the first thing that you may think of is that you are losing control. You may also think that you are experiencing a heart attack. If the episode is so severe, you may even think that you are dying.
A lot of people experience panic attacks, but these usually just happen to them once or twice in their entire lifetime. In most cases, the problem will disappear, especially if a stressful situation they have been dealing with finally comes to an end. However, if your panic attacks are recurrent, unexpected, and if you are in constant fear of getting another episode, this may already be a sign that you are suffering from a condition known as panic disorder.
Symptoms of a Panic Attack
As mentioned above, a panic attack can happen suddenly, because the symptoms associated with such an event can just occur despite of having no apparent reason or evidence of danger. This is why it is important to understand and realize what the real symptoms of a panic attack are. There are many, but the most common ones are the following:
- A feeling of impending doom
- A sense of danger
- Rapid heart rate
- Tightening of the chest and the throat
- Shortness of breath
- A feeling of being smothered
- Problems in swallowing
- Cramps in the abdomen
- Stomach upset
- Chest pains
- Numbness or a tingling sensation affecting the hands
- Dreamlike sensations
- Perceptual distortions
- A need to escape
- Extreme nervousness about doing something that is embarrassing
- Severe uneasiness about losing control
- Sweating and trembling
- Hot flashes
- Fear of dying
One thing to keep in mind is that the duration of panic attack episodes vary greatly. In most cases, they usually last for a little more than ten minutes. However, these ten minutes can already cause great distress in the person experiencing the attack.
Causes of Panic Attacks
While the exact causes of panic attacks are still unknown, studies revealed that there are certain factors playing a role in their development or having a triggering effect on them. These include the following:
- Extreme stress
- Changes in how the brain functions
- Temperament that is highly susceptible to various types of stress factors
- Complete physical examination
- Blood testing to check for possible conditions that may be affecting your thyroid
- Examinations on your heart such as EKG or ECG to determine how it is functioning
- An evaluation conducted by your doctor or a mental health professional to assess your symptoms, fears, concerns, stressful situations, relationship problems, and other concerns that you may have about your life
- Palpitations with or without an accelerated heart rate
- Dry heaving with or without gagging
- Shaking or trembling
- Shortness of breath (can be in the form of feeling like you are being smothered)
- A feeling of being choked
- Chest pain
- Abdominal stress or nausea
- Faintness, dizziness, unsteadiness,
- Feeling of unreality or in some people, depersonalization
- Fear of going insane or losing one’s control
- Sense of dying
- Tingling or numbing sensations
- Hot flashes or chills
In addition to these, there are also certain conditions that have panic attacks as one of their symptoms. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), intoxication, and schizophrenia are some conditions. Some people also experience these episodes if they are undergoing withdrawal from certain drugs that they have used and abused. Those who are suffering from anemia or thyroid abnormalities can also experience intense anxiety. Taking certain drugs can also lead to this, such as stimulants and those for diabetes and malaria.
Seriousness of Panic Attacks
One of the most commonly asked question about panic attacks: ‘are panic attacks really serious?’ The answer to this is yes, they definitely are. They have the potential to emotionally disable a person. In addition, because of the similarity in symptoms, they are often mistaken for other life-threatening problems such as heart attacks. In fact, more than 20 percent of people who go to emergency rooms because they are suffering from chest pains are actually experiencing these episodes.
Testing and Diagnosing
Since the symptoms of a panic attack can be very similar to those associated with heart attacks, your doctor will require you to undergo several tests and exams in order to come up with an accurate diagnosis. Your primary doctor or other health care professionals will need to determine whether what you are suffering from are indeed panic attacks. They need to do this since your condition may actually be a panic disorder or other health problems that resemble the symptoms of panic attacks.
Some of the tests that you may be required to take include the following:
It is also important for you to answer any psychological questionnaires or self-assessment tests that may be given to you. You should also be honest in telling your doctor about your alcohol consumption or if you are using any type of substance.
Diagnostic Criteria for Panic Attack
If you have had a panic attack, you do not have to immediately assume that you are suffering from panic disorder. What you need to do is to seek the assistance of a professional health care provider so that he or she can properly diagnose your condition. There is actually a diagnostic criteria used in order to determine if you experienced a panic episode.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the Diagnostic Criteria for Panic Attack is a discrete period of having intense discomfort or fear, in which four or more symptoms abruptly developed and reached a peak in just 10 minutes. These symptoms include the following: