Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder

Young women's version of this guide
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Getting nervous before giving a presentation at school or before a big game is normal – but if you’ve ever felt like you’re going to lose control, have a heart attack, or even “go crazy”, you might have had a panic attack. If you’re so afraid of having another panic attack that you stop participating in these activities, you might have panic disorder.

What is a panic attack?

A panic attack is a sudden rush of intense fear or discomfort, which reaches a peak within 10 minutes, and includes at least four of the following symptoms:

  • Racing or pounding heart
  • Sweating
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Shortness of breath or feelings of being smothered
  • Feeling of choking
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Chills or hot flashes
  • Nausea or upset stomach
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • A sense of things being unreal or feeling detached from oneself
  • Numbness or tingling sensations
  • Fear of losing control or “going crazy”
  • Fear of dying

Panic attacks are fairly common and can be very uncomfortable. They can happen in any situation in which you find yourself feeling nervous, afraid, or overly worried. If you have at least four of the symptoms listed above before or during an activity that you know causes you to panic, such as speaking in public, being around an animal that makes you nervous, or getting on a plane, for example, this is a panic attack.

If you have symptoms of a panic attack, it’s important to see your health care provider so he or she can evaluate your symptoms to make sure they aren’t caused by a medical problem.

Panic Disorder

If you are increasingly worried about having panic attacks or you’re afraid that something bad will happen because of a panic attack, you may have panic disorder.

How do I know if I have panic disorder?

Having panic disorder means that you have unexpected and repeated panic attacks and are afraid of having them, particularly in public situations. In other words, panic disorder is really a “fear of panic attacks”. You may also begin to fear something bad happening as a result of panic attacks, such as losing control, “going crazy”, or having a heart attack.

What problems can panic disorder cause?

When left untreated, panic disorder can interfere with your daily life.

It can cause:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Poor school performance
  • Problems with peer and family relationships
  • Social isolation
  • Sleep problems
  • Depression
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Agoraphobia (fear of visiting crowded places)

What causes panic attacks and panic disorder?

Unfortunately, the causes are still unknown.

Things that may increase your risk of having panic attacks or panic disorder include:

  • Genetics (family history of panic attacks)
  • Stress
  • Traumatic events

How can I get help for panic disorder?

If you’ve had at least two unexpected panic attacks and have been worried about having more attacks to the point where you are avoiding situations that may trigger them, you may have panic disorder, and should seek help. Talk with your primary health care provider about your symptoms, and ask for a referral to a mental health professional. A mental health professional can talk with you about different treatment options, including therapy and/or medication.

What treatment can help panic disorder?

Your mental health provider will take a careful history and get to know you so he/she can decide what treatment is best for you. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of therapy that is often helpful for panic disorder. Medication can be helpful as well. The goal of treatment is to eliminate your panic attacks and help you learn ways to cope with stress.

If you’re concerned about panic attacks, here’s a tip on how to bring it up with your health care provider: “I think I have panic attacks. How can I get help?”