A panic attack is the sudden onset of intense distress or dread, accompanied by severe and often painful physical symptoms. It can happen out of the blue, sometimes even while you’re relaxed or asleep. Many people experiencing a panic attack for the first time rush off to the emergency room fearing a heart attack or stroke approaching.

Panic attacks can affect anyone, even someone who is generally healthy and happy. It can be a once-off experience for some, but for many people they occur all too frequently. Left untreated, panic attacks can lead to panic disorder and in worst cases, agoraphobia.

Experiencing panic attacks does not necessarily mean you have a panic disorder, although the two are related. Panic attacks are fairly common, affecting over four million Americans (roughly 5% of the population) according to the National Institute of Mental Health. True panic disorder however is less prevalent.

Symptoms of a panic attack

Although everyone experiences panic attacks differently there are a number of symptoms that occur in most cases. Should you experience a combination of the following symptoms, you are probably having a panic attack:

  • Hyperventilation or shortness of breath
  • Chest pain or tightness
  • Racing heart or heart palpitations
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Choking feeling
  • Nausea or stomach upset
  • Dizziness or feeling light-headed
  • Feeling detached from your surroundings
  • Hot or cold flashes
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Fear of losing control, going crazy or dying

The symptoms of panic attacks develop abruptly and usually peak at around ten minutes into the attack. It can take twenty to thirty minutes for the attack to subside and they seldom last longer than an hour.

What is agoraphobia?

About one in three patients suffering from regular panic attacks or another panic disorder may develop agoraphobia. Traditionally thought to be a fear of open spaces and public places, researchers now believe that agoraphobia develops as a complication of panic attacks.

People suffering from regular and severe panic attacks may begin avoiding public places – like shopping malls or sports arenas. They have an acute fear of having an embarrassing attack in public, or being unable to escape or find help.

An agoraphobic patient will develop “safe zones” encompassing specific routes (e.g. travelling from home to work and back again), and will seldom venture beyond them. They withdraw from social interaction and could become housebound if the phobia is left untreated.

Causes of panic attacks

There is no single trigger for a panic attack nor does it affect a certain type of person. Researchers have noted that it occurs more frequently in women than in men, and usually begins in adolescence. A family history of panic disorders may also leave you with a genetic predisposition to panic attacks.

Major life transitions – like getting married or having a baby – can also bring about these attacks. As can severe stress or traumatic events such as the death of a loved one, losing a job or having to go through a divorce.

There are also certain medical conditions that could cause seemingly random panic attacks. These include:

  • Hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid gland)
  • Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar)
  • Mitral valve prolapse, a minor cardiac problem where one of the heart’s valves doesn’t close properly
  • Stimulant use, such as amphetamines, cocaine and caffeine
  • Medication withdrawal
  • Chemical or hormonal imbalances in the body

Treatment for panic attacks

Here are some useful self-help tips to reduce both the symptom and consequences of an attack:

Control your breathing

Breathe in through your nose and exhale through your mouth. Try to breathe in for five seconds and breathe out for five seconds to help you calm down.

Avoid caffeine, alcohol and smoking

These stimulants can provoke panic attacks in people who are susceptible.

Exercise regularly

Try to get moving for at least thirty minutes a day. Aerobic exercises that require the use of both arms and legs, like running, swimming or dancing are healthy diversions.

Practice relaxation techniques

Make time in your day to practice yoga, meditation or progressive muscle relaxation.

Get enough quality sleep

Restful sleep aids in fighting off anxiety, whereas insomnia and disturbed sleeping patterns can make the condition worse.

If you suspect you may be suffering from an anxiety related condition seek medical help sooner rather than later, as panic episodes are very treatable. Allowing the condition to worsen increases your recovery time, while seeking treatment early on can help you overcome panic attacks within a few short weeks.