What is a panic attack?

People often use the phrase panic attack to refer to people who are freaking out and need to calm down. But what is an actual panic attack and what can be done about it?

What is a panic attack?

For people really suffering from panic attacks, it’s no laughing matter. It can be a crippling anxiety disorder for those who suffer from frequent panic attacks. The symptoms of a panic attack include heart palpitations, rapid breathing, dizziness, shaking, nausea and sweating. Someone having a panic attack may feel like they are dying or having a heart attack. Though they may feel as if something terrible is happening, panic attacks do not cause any physical damage.  

Because some of the symptoms of a heart attack, like chest pains, often occur during a panic attack, it is important to go to the doctor if you are having your first panic attack to be on the safe side. Once the episode is diagnosed as a panic attack by a doctor, then you will be able to rule out a heart attack if you have another attack; and if you have one panic attack, the likelihood that you will have another is about 75%.  

That said, some people have a panic attack once and that is it. It could be brought on by some event that triggers a panic attack. Say you have a fear of heights and you get on a rollercoaster and have a panic attack.  It may have just been that particular ride that caused you to have a panic attack. You may avoid rollercoasters from that point on and never experience another panic attack. But if you have repeated attacks that come out of nowhere, you may be suffering from panic disorder; one of several anxiety disorders that require extended psychiatric treatment.

Having panic disorder is different from having a panic attack. A person diagnosed with panic disorder can end up suffering from depression, agoraphobia and thoughts of suicide. That is why it is very important to make sure that when you first experience a panic attack that you are evaluated by a doctor so that he or she can refer you to a mental health professional that can better diagnose and treat panic disorder.

There are medications that can help people who suffer repeated panic attacks. But by far, the best treatment for panic attacks is psychotherapy that treats the root causes of your anxiety. 

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