What Is A Panic Attack?

GinaMarie Guarino, LMHC

What Is A Panic Attack?

Having a panic attack is a scary experience. Often a person who is having a panic attack does not know they are having a panic attack. It can be triggered by something known or can happen unexpectedly.

A panic attack is something that occurs as a result of being overwhelmed with anxiety. Sometimes, that anxiety can seemingly come out of nowhere. It is not uncommon for a person to have a panic attack and not know why.

Panic attacks are commonly seen with other anxiety disorders and mood disorders. Other terms one may use to refer to a history of panic attacks are acute stress disorder and panic disorder. In order to be diagnosed with panic disorder, a person must experience at least one panic attack per month for a period of six months.

Symptoms of a Panic Attack

Panic attack causes an affected person to feel many distressing sensations. During a panic attack you may feel like you are dying or experiencing a medical emergency. These sensations are scary, and typically last for about 10 minutes.

The most common and severe symptoms of a panic attack are feeling sensations similar to a heart attack and shortness of breath. These symptoms are alarming, but are not dangerous. You cannot die from having a panic attack.

Symptoms of a panic attack include:

  • Feeling faint
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Lightheadedness
  • Hyperventilating
  • Believing one is dying
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Pins and needles throughout body
  • Chest pain

Causes and Risk Factors of a Panic Attack

Stress is the main risk factor for panic attacks. If a person has too much stress in their life, they are at high risk for a panic attack.

Some common life stressors that contribute to panic attacks include:

  • Being overwhelmed with work or school
  • Relationship issues
  • Family issues
  • Medical concerns
  • Co-occurring anxiety disorders
  • Social anxiety
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Co-occurring mood disorders
  • Depression
  • Co-occurring psychotic disorders
  • Fear of having a panic attack
  • History of abuse or trauma
  • Grief or other emotional turmoil

Treatment for Panic Attacks

Panic attacks are scary to experience, but they are treatable. A combination of lifestyle changes and cognitive therapy will help reduce panic attacks.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and Exposure Therapy. CBT has been found to help relieve symptoms of:

CBT works by identifying and changing the way you respond to triggers.

CBT teaches stress management skills. It uses cognitive reconstruction to change the way you respond to stress. It also implements exposure therapy. Exposure therapy helps reduce the emotional reaction to unpleasant stimuli.

Talk therapy. Talk therapy has been found to be useful in cases of panic attacks, phobias, abuse and trauma. With talk therapy you are able to speak about the things you are afraid of or are upset about. This can help reduce the stress when confronted with a trigger.

Being able to talk about your struggles will help you identify areas in life that can be improved. For example, if you have trouble sleeping you will likely have higher levels of anxiety.

Through talk therapy you can identify the problem area. You can then work with your therapist to develop a plan to modify your lifestyle to address the issues. This will reduce the stress that is causing you to have panic attacks.


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