What It Really Means To Have A Panic Attack

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Would you be able to recognize the signs if you were having one? (Photo: Getty Images)

"Having a panic attack” — it seems to be the latest mental health catch phrase, used to describe anyone who’s stressed and spread too thin.

“More and more, you hear the words ‘panic attack’ in everyday conversations the same way you also hear people say they’re ‘depressed,’” Catherine Birndorf, MD, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, tells Yahoo Health. “But it’s a term that’s often used too loosely.”

Typically, people cite a “panic attack” when describing an array of emotions, such as anxiety, before a big event. Or maybe they use it to describe a sense of impending doom. But really, “panic attacks actually have specific symptoms that go along with them,” Birndorf tells Yahoo Health. And anyone can have a panic attack, even those without a diagnosed anxiety disorder.

Related: What Panic Attacks Feel Like

So what is a panic attack and how do you know if you’re having one? “Panic attacks are these discrete episodes that come on suddenly — seemingly out of nowhere — along with an array of physical and mental symptoms,” Birndorf explains. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), a panic attack is “an abrupt surge of intense fear or intense discomfort that reaches a peak within minutes.” In that time period, you are having a panic attack if you have four or more of the following symptoms:

  • Palpitations, a pounding heart or an accelerated heart rate

  • Sweating

  • Trembling or shaking

  • Shortness of breath or a feeling of being smothered

  • A feeling of choking

  • Chest pain or discomfort

  • Nausea or stomach distress

  • Feeling dizzy, lightheaded or faint

  • Chills or heat sensations

  • Numbness or tingling

  • A sense of unreality or feeling as if you’re detached from yourself

  • Fear of losing control or going crazy 

  • Acute fear of dying

It may seem like an eternity when you’re in the middle of one, but a panic attack is actually quite brief. “Although some symptoms can linger, panic attacks typically last less than 10 minutes,” Birndorf says. “People think they are having a heart attack, dying, or going crazy, and their feelings are not in proportion to what is actually happening.” A panic attack may or may not be related to what is going on around you, and can come on from either a calm or anxious state. 

Related: How to End an Anxiety Attack

For many people, a panic attack is a one-time occurrence. That said, once you’ve had one, you’re at greater risk of having another. While experts don’t know exactly what causes panic attacks and why some people have them while others don’t, one thing is clear: It’s not a personal weakness or a character flaw.

What should you do if you experience one? If you have just one panic attack, no need to worry. But if you have more than one or find yourself anxious and fearful about having another, seek help from a health care professional. Self-help methods such as breathing and relaxation techniques can help, but panic attacks can also be treated with therapeutic approaches such as cognitive behavioral therapy. In many cases medications such as antidepressants and benzodiazepines can be useful or needed to treat panic attacks and panic disorder.

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