Panic Attacks - Symptoms and Treatment

A panic attack is a sudden anxiety reaction, which is made worse by our bodies fight or flight reflex. Different situations can set off panic attacks for different people. But for everyone who suffers from panic attacks, chronic stress makes them worse (read my recent blog to learn more about how emotional stress can affect our physical health). 

Panic attacks can be scary for both the person being “attacked with panic” and their friends and loved ones who experiencing it along side them.  Equipping yourself with knowledge about panic attacks is the first step to conquering them.

Panic Attack - "The Great Masquerader"

I call panic attacks “the great masquerader” because they can cause symptoms that mimic other medical conditions. Because of this, it is important to not just look at the symptoms, but also look at what causes them.

One of my patients suffered from panic attacks for years and never realized it. 

She always assumed her racing heart and difficulty breathing was from her asthma attacks.  When she came to me she had been suffering from “asthma” for years, and had been on medications with minimal benefits. I grew suspicious when she told me albuterol made her asthma symptoms worse.  Instead of accepting her asthma diagnosis at face value, I had her describe in detail what set off these attacks. It turned out she would have these “attacks” whenever she was in a crowded place and in very specific high anxiety or high stress situations. She would never have attacks when she was not in these situations. At first she did not believe me when I told her she was having panic attacks, but after we worked on managing her stress, the attacks almost completely went away.

Is it a Panic Attack?

A person having a panic attack will usually have four or more of the following symptoms:

  • Shortness of breath, or feeling like you can’t breathe
  • Racing heart
  • Sweating
  • Hot flushes or chills
  • Nausea
  • Feeling like you are choking
  • Feeling dizzy or unsteady
  • Feeling that your body is not real
  • Numbness or tingling in part of your body
  • Chest pain
  • Fear of dying, fear of “going crazy,” or fear of losing control

It is important to remember that the symptoms of a panic attack can also be signs of a serious illness, so if you are having concerning symptoms such as chest pain, it is important to see a doctor.

Panic Attack Treatment

It is important to remember that everyone is an individual. Panic attacks are different for everyone, so no one treatment is guaranteed to cure everyone.  Patients who have conquered their panic attacks usually tell me that they needed to try several different tactics in order to get good control.  Although medications can be used to control panic attacks, for long-term control, it is best to try to work at the root of the problem causing them.  Rather than trying to cover up the symptoms with medications, work to reduce chronic stress and anxiety.  Below are some techniques that my patients have used to help control and even conquer their panic attacks:

  • Relaxation Techniques – there are many different approaches to relaxation techniques.  I would recommend looking into some and seeing what works best for you.  I wrote a recent blog about using meditation to treat stress, anxiety, and panic attacks. ( When learning a new relaxation technique, it is important to remember that it takes time and practice to get good at it.  The longer you have been stressed, the longer it will take to master it.
  • Therapy/Counseling – there are therapists that specialize in panic attacks.  They can be very helpful from recommending ways to identify and avoid triggers, figuring out ways to reduce stress, working out the route psychological issues that are causing the panic attacks, and in some cases doing desensitization.
  • Reducing Anxiety and Stress from you Life – this is often easier said then done, but is one of the best ways to long term victory.
  • Detox your Body – Particularly Alcohol, cigarettes, caffeine, “energy drinks,” marijuana and other recreational drugs.
  • Eating Healthy – Eating a healthy well balanced diet can help.  Some people benefit from an elimination diet
  • Natural Products – It is important to remember the most natural way to help your panic attacks are the lifestyle changes I mention above.  Natural homeopathic products and supplements that people use to help manage stress, anxiety, and panic attacks are meant to support your efforts, not to make all effort for you.
  • Medications – Like natural products, medications, if used, should be support for you own effort to improve your lifestyle - they should not be the only effort made. Although medications can be helpful for more severe cases, it is important to also use other strategies for long-term management.

Stay Healthy,

Dr. Jeff M.D.

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