What is a Panic Attack?

The Mayo Clinic explains that a panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear that develops for no apparent reason. Panic attack symptoms may include such physical reactions as chills, nausea and tightness in the throat. People may also have hot flashes, abdominal cramping and trouble swallowing. Whereas panic attacks were once dismissed as nerves or stress, they are now recognized as a real medical response to anxiety.

A Closer Look at Panic Attacks

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), panic attacks usually produce a sense of unreality, a fear of impending doom or a fear of losing control. Attacks often cannot be predicted in terms of where or when they will happen, and people may thus worry intensely between episodes and dread the next attack. An attack normally peaks within 10 minutes, but some symptoms may last much longer. The NIMH explains that many people have just one attack and never have another. The tendency to develop panic attacks appears to be inherited, although stress certainly plays a role as well. According to the Mayo Clinic, some research suggests the body's natural fight-or-flight response to danger is involved in panic attacks. If a car was headed in one's direction, for example, the body would react instinctively. This often involves increases in heart rate and breathing as the body prepares itself for a life-threatening situation. Many of the same reactions occur in a panic attack, but the exact causes of panic attack when no obvious danger is present remain unknown. Repeated and apparently unprovoked panic attacks may be a sign of panic disorder, but panic attacks are associated with other anxiety disorders as well. People who suffer from phobias, for example, may experience panic attacks upon exposure to certain triggers. Night terrors, psychological trauma and fear may also invoke panic attacks.

Seeking Treatment

The NIMH cautions that people who have full-blown, repeated panic attacks can become very disabled by their conditions. For this reason, they should seek help for panic attacks before they start to avoid places or situations where panic attacks have occurred. The Mayo Clinic explains that doctors primarily prescribe medications, such as mild sedatives or anti-depressants, and psychotherapy. This treatment, also called counseling or talk therapy, can help patients understand panic attacks and how to cope with them. Techniques that fall under psychotherapy include cognitive behavioral therapy and psychodynamic psychotherapy. Without proper treatment, people's lives can become so restricted that they avoid normal activities, such as grocery shopping or jogging, to prevent panic attacks. Approximately 33 percent of sufferers become housebound or unable to confront a feared situation.  Early treatment, however, can prevent panic disorder and agoraphobia.




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