9 Things to Know About Panic Attacks

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Written By Jill Moore on November 10, 2020
  • woman under stress
    When Fear Strikes
    “One day I felt terrified. No warning. No reason. My heart pounded, my head spun. I thought, I’m having a heart attack.” If this sounds familiar, you know how quickly a panic attack can strike from seemingly out of nowhere, and how debilitating it can be. The intense fear or discomfort usually doesn’t last long, but it’s the dread of it happening again that’s the hallmark of panic disorder. Fortunately, with awareness of panic symptoms and the available treatment options, you can keep panic disorder until control.
  • Stressed woman rubbing her forehead at laptop
    A panic attack is not just emotional.
    Physical symptoms of panic disorder include a pounding or racing heart, sweating, trouble breathing, weakness, dizziness, feeling hot or cold, tingly or numb hands and chest pain. You may also feel a sense of losing control or “going crazy,” a fear of dying, an extreme worry about when the next attack will happen, and the need to avoid places where you’ve had a panic attack.
  • Worried Woman Waiting
    Panic disorder can lead to other serious conditions.
    Although panic disorder is not dangerous, it can very scary. And without treatment, it can lead to worse things such as phobias, depression, substance abuse, medical complications, and even suicide. Its effects can range from a mild social impairment to an inability to face the outside world. In fact, one study cited the case of a woman who gave up a $40,000 a year job for a $14,000 a year job that didn’t require travel.
  • women-young-heart-myths
    Panic disorder is more common than you may think.
    People who suffer from panic attacks may think they’re alone, but that’s far from the case. Roughly one out of every 75 people, or about six million American adults, experience panic disorder resulting from recurring panic attacks. It usually rears its head in the teenage years to early adulthood. No ethnic group is more likely to have it than another, but women are twice as likely as men to have panic disorder.
  • Visiting mom
    The cause of panic disorder isn’t clear.
    Panic disorders are known to run in families, but there are no answers yet to the the question of why one family member has it while others don’t. Researchers have found that several parts of the brain are involved in fear and anxiety, yet stress and environmental factors may also play a role. Sometimes major life transitions seem to be connected to panic disorder: college graduation, marriage, parenthood. And sometimes just worrying about panic leads to more panic. 
  • Female doctor discussing with a patient
    It’s important to get diagnosed—even if it takes some time.
    Some people suffer from panic disorders without telling anyone, not even a doctor or loved one, and may even distance themselves from friends or family. What’s important to know is that panic disorder is highly treatable, with many therapies available. The key is to seek treatment from a licensed therapist. One study found that people have seen more than 10 doctors before being properly diagnosed, and only one in four people receive the treatment they need.
  • Panic Attack
    Frequent panic attacks mean it’s time to find help.
    Occasional panic attacks are not uncommon, and experiencing one or two panic attacks probably isn’t a reason to put up a red flag. The top symptom of panic disorder is the persistent fear of having more panic attacks. So if you’ve had four or more panic attacks and if you live in fear of having more, it’s probably time to find a mental health professional who specializes in panic or anxiety disorders.
  • Emergency Room
    Panic disorder can be mistaken for several other conditions.
    In the past, panic disorder has been a master of disguises, making diagnosis difficult. Since its symptoms can mimic those of heart disease, thyroid problems, breathing disorders and more, it has sent many people to the ER or doctor, convinced their life is threatened. It often used to take months or years for a correct diagnosis. But times have changed.
  • Doctor Writing Medical Prescription
    There are many effective treatments for panic disorder.
    With professional care, most people suffering from recurring panic attacks can find relief. Treatment options include therapy, medication, or both. Some people get better in a few months, but it can take more than a year for others. Success depends on your willingness to stick to the plan, and it can get more complicated if you suffer from depression, substance abuse, or another anxiety disorder. The most effective treatments are highly personalized, and lead to a life free from worry about when the next panic attack will hit.
9 Things to Know About Panic Attacks | Healthgrades

About The Author

  1. Answers to Your Questions about Panic Disorder. American Psychological Association. http://www.apa.org/topics/anxiety/panic-disorder.aspx
  2. Understanding the Facts: Panic Disorder & Agoraphobia: Symptoms. Anxiety and Depression Association of America. http://www.adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/panic-disorder-agoraphobia/symptoms
  3. Panic Disorder: When Fear Overwhelms. National Institute of Mental Health. http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/panic-disorder-when-fear-overwhelms/index.shtml
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Nov 10
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.