What is a Panic Attack?

A panic attack is a sudden, distinct episode of intense and overwhelming anxiety that often occurs without warning or any obvious reason.  The experience of a panic attack is far more powerful and extreme than the feeling of being “highly stressed”, tense, or worried.  The individual may feel like sudden death is imminent and that at any moment a terrible trauma is about to happen, or that they are about to die of a heart attack.

While a panic attack may show no direct relation to the current situation or identifiable trigger, panic attacks have been linked to existing phobias an individual may or may not understand.  The panic attack acts as a protective mechanism for the individual creating a flight or fight response in the individual that includes the surge of hormones including adrenalin that are required to spur an individual into action.


When I discover who I am, I'll be free. - Ralph Ellison

Symptoms of Panic Attacks

  • Intense fear that something terrible is happening or going to happen
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Difficulty breathing with the sensation that you cannot get enough air to breath
  • Lightheadedness, nausea, and dizziness
  • Chest pains, choking
  • Sudden chills or hot flashes
  • A fear that you are going crazy or about to die
  • A feeling of terror
  • Feeling out of control
  • Tightness in your throat
  • Abdominal cramping
  • Hyperventilation

What Causes A Panic Attack?

Panic attacks are based in anxiety and therefore possible genetic predisposition is one factor for why an individual may suffer from these events.  Additionally, significant stressful events can result in a panic attack.  Hearing of the death of a loved one, going through a marital separation, or being diagnosed with an illness are all events that deplete one’s emotional reserves possibly making you vulnerable to increased anxiety and panic attacks.

A panic attack is not dangerous, but does provide a terrifying experience as individuals feel out of control and unable to predict and when the next attack may occur.  Panic attacks when left untreated can lead to other complications including depression, substance abuse, phobias, medical complications, and even suicide.  The effects of panic attacks can be mild to a complete inability to face the world and social isolation.

What Is Phobia?

Phobias occur when an individual experiences an intense, irrational, and persistent fear of something specific.  A phobia differs from a panic attack in that there is a definable object, situation, person, or activity that the individual fears.  Phobias are identified as an unreasonable and excessive desire to avoid the item that is causing the fear response.  Phobias are the most common form of anxiety disorders affecting between 8% and 18% of individuals according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Phobias can often be traced back to underlying trauma in the individual’s life and result from a combination of an ineffective coping mechanism to these situations.  The external event (the trauma) and the individual’s internal predispositions (coping mechanism) create the environment for the development of the phobia.  Unresolved phobias, and traumas may lead to the experience of panic attacks as individuals are no longer able to effectively cope with the experiences in their lives.

Panic attacks occur suddenly, without any warning or ability to stop the progression of the attack.  The fear an individual feels during an attack is way out of proportion to the actual situation and is often unrelated.  Individuals may in fact be in a safe place with others around them when they have a panic attack leaving them helpless to those around them.  Panic attacks usually last only a few minutes as the body cannot maintain the fight or flight response for an extended period of time.  Unfortunately, repeated panic attacks can continue to reoccur for a number of hours leaving individuals exhausted and frustrated. 

One of the difficulties with panic attacks is the anticipatory anxiety that exists between attacks.  Individuals have an acute sense of “when is it going to happen next”.  This continues to compound the underlying anxiety and continues the cycles of anxiety – panic attack.  Panic attacks tend to affect more women than men.  For individuals who experience regular panic attacks or attacks of increasing severity, a condition known as panic disorder may develop if the attacks are left untreated.

Treatment and Counseling for Panic Disorders and Phobia

Many people are greatly helped by first understanding what a panic disorder is and realizing it is not a life threatening situation in and of itself.  Sufferers often feel that they are going crazy or possibly having a heart attack.  Learning that these symptoms are not actually a physiological problem on their own (after consultation with a medical doctor), individuals can begin to develop more realistic and positive ways of viewing their attacks.

Through therapy, individuals can begin to assess and determine possible triggers for the attacks.  These could include underlying anxieties not related to the attacks, thoughts, feelings, or even a belief about oneself that leaves the individual unable to reconcile these aspects with their current situation.  The anxiety and panic attack may the method the body is using to process these confusing and complications components. 
In some cases, depending of the underlying cause of the anxiety or depression, medication may be necessary as the individual works through the issues and develops an understanding of what is causing the panic attacks.  Individuals who are too fearful to leave their home may not seek counseling without first having their experience of chronic anxiety under control with the use of medication.  All treatment with any medication should be maintained and monitored by a medical doctor and not self-treatment.  It should be noted that some medications can actually cause an increase in anxiety, depression, and panic attacks and are note suitable for all individuals.

Relaxation techniques are also used in the treatment of panic disorders.  These techniques are beneficial both in helping a sufferer during an attack to calm themselves as well as when attacks are not present to reduce chronic anxiety.  Developing an understanding of your own body’s response to situations and mounting anxiety is a step towards resolving the underlying emotions and thoughts that trigger the panic attacks. 

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