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 happen unexpectedly. During a panic attack you will feel like you are dying or having a medical emergency. A panic attack is something that occurs as a result of being overwhelmed with anxiety.

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 a patient to feel many distressing sensations. The sensations one feels are scary for the patient. For the patient it can feel like he or she is having a heart attack or cannot breathe. A panic attack typically lasts for about 10 minutes before subsiding. 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 his or her 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, phobias, etc.)
  • Co-occurring mood disorders
  • 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) has been found to help reduce panic attacks. CBT works by identifying and changing the way you respond to triggers. CBT helps teach 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 has also been found to be useful in cases of 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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