Everybody’s been nervous or felt fear at some point. Maybe it was the time you were sure the airplane was going down as it bounced around in a thunderstorm. Or before that final exam. Or the time you got into trouble and knew this was the day the piper finally got paid.
As bad as you felt, it probably wasn’t a panic attack. “Panic attack” is a term that gets thrown around a lot – often when people are in difficult and unpleasant situations – but actual panic attacks are far more severe than ordinary fear or anxiety.
So what is a panic attack?
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), a panic attack is a sudden appearance of intense discomfort or fear, with sensations reaching a peak within minutes. Panic attacks include at least four of the following symptoms:
- A fast heart rate, a pounding heartbeat or heart palpitations
- Chest discomfort or pain
- Choking feelings
- Dizziness, light-headedness or feeling faint
- Fears of dying or losing control
- Feelings of detachment from one’s self (depersonalization) or unreality (derealization)
- Feelings of tingling or numbness, also known as paresthesia
- Sensations of hot or cold
- Shaking or trembling
- Shortness of breath
Panic disorder is a condition involving frequent panic attacks. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) says it can cause patients with the disorder to avoid or fear places and situations where panic attacks occurred in the past. ADAA reports 2.7 percent of Americans are affected by the disorder yearly. Women are twice as likely to be affected as men, and the disorder often occurs with major depression.
Treating panic attacks
Given their speed and severity, panic attacks can be very frightening to experience for both the patient and those around them. Fortunately, both panic attacks and panic disorder respond to treatment. According to NIMH, treatment usually involves medication, psychotherapy or a combination of both:
- Medication: Mayo Clinic reports antidepressant drugs such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) including Prozac and Zoloft are among the first drugs prescribed for patients dealing with panic attacks. Although SSRIs are largely safe, they do have side effects and certain risks and should only be taken under medical supervision. Also, Mayo Clinic warns these medications can be risky for children, adolescents and young adults.
- Therapy: The word “psychotherapy” sounds somewhat intimidating, but it’s simply a tool that helps people understand and deal with their problem. Just as there are many kinds of mental disorders, there’s many different kinds of psychotherapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a powerful, effective form of psychotherapy dating from the 1960s. With CBT, patients learn about their mental condition and ways to deal with it, which can include coping techniques, stress management and learning to become more assertive.
Anxiety disorders in children
Massachusetts General Hospital’s Mood & Anxiety Disorders Institute (MADI) reports panic attacks often look different in children. Young children are often not capable of articulating the intense fears driving anxiety attacks, and adolescents can often be embarrassed by their symptoms and be reluctant to discuss them with parents or doctors. Children with panic attacks may have difficulty explaining what their worries are, become isolated from their friends and refuse to participate in activities at school and elsewhere. MADI also warns that, if left untreated, panic disorders can lead a child to experiment with drugs and alcohol for relief, or even develop suicidal thoughts.
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About the author
Brian Moore is a 20-year veteran of the newspaper industry, he writes articles and creates graphics. Brian enjoys music, bicycling and playing the tuba, which’s he’s done with varying degrees of success for over 25 years.