Panic Attack

A panic attack is an extreme fear reaction that comes on for no clear reason. You may have a fear that something terrible will happen or that you may die. The attack may last a few minutes up to a few hours. Between attacks, things will seem quite normal. This condition has a mental health cause and can be treated with the help of a therapist or psychiatrist. If panic attacks happen often, they are called a panic disorder. Medicine can be very helpful for this problem.

Panic attacks usually come on suddenly, reach a peak within minutes, and include at least 4 of these symptoms:

  • Fluttering feeling in the heart (palpitations), pounding heart, or fast heart rate

  • Sweating

  • Chills or feeling warm

  • Trembling or shaking

  • Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering

  • Feelings of choking

  • Chest pain or discomfort

  • Nausea or stomachache

  • Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint

  • Numbness or tingling sensations

  • Fear of dying

  • Fear of going crazy or of losing control

  • Feelings of unreality, strangeness, or detachment from the environment

Many of these symptoms can be linked to physical problems. Sometimes a healthcare provider will need to rule out conditions such as thyroid disorders, heart disease, or digestive problems. These conditions can also start as physical symptoms. But you may react to the symptoms in a fearful way. That can make you feel worse.

Home care

  • Try to find the sources of stress in your life. They may not be obvious. These may include:

    • Daily hassles of life piling up (traffic jams, missed appointments, or car troubles).

    • Major life changes, both good (new baby, job promotion) and bad (loss of job, loss of loved one).

    • Feeling that you have too many responsibilities and can't take care of everything at once.

    • Helplessness. This is feeling like your problems are too much for you to handle.

  • Notice how your body reacts to stress. Learn to listen to your body signals so that you can take action before the stress becomes severe.

  • Try to be aware of what you were doing before the reaction started. This may give you clues to things that can trigger a reaction. It may be situations in your life, or what you were doing at the time.

  • When possible, prevent or reduce the cause of stress. Pass up hassles, limit the amount of change that is happening in your life at one time, or take a break when you feel overloaded.

  • Unfortunately, you can't stay away from many stressful situations. So you need to learn how to manage stress better. Many proven methods will reduce your anxiety. These include simple things like exercise, good nutrition, and adequate rest. Certain techniques also are helpful: relaxation and breathing exercises, visualization, biofeedback, meditation, or simply taking time out to clear your mind. For more information about this, ask your doctor or go to a local bookstore and review the many books and tapes available on this subject.

Follow-up care

Follow-up with your healthcare provider, or as advised.

Call 911

Call 911 if you:

  • Have suicidal thoughts, a suicide plan, and the means to carry out the plan

  • Have serious thoughts of hurting someone else

  • Have trouble breathing

  • Are very confused

  • Feel very drowsy or have trouble awakening

  • Faint or lose consciousness

  • Have new chest pain that becomes more severe, lasts longer, or spreads into your shoulder, arm, neck, jaw, or back

  • Have a very rapid or irregular heartbeat

  • Have a seizure

When to seek medical advice

Call your healthcare provider right away if any of these occur:

  • Symptoms get worse to the point of feeling out-of-control

  • Feeling that you may try to harm yourself or another

  • Can't sleep or eat for 3 days in a row

  • Increased pain with breathing

  • Increasing feeling of weakness or dizziness

  • Cough with dark-colored sputum (phlegm) or blood

  • Fever of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher, or as directed by your healthcare provider

  • Swelling, pain, or redness in one leg

  • Requests by family or friends for you to seek help for your symptoms

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