You're walking down the street, driving along the highway, or enjoying a movie when suddenly, for no apparent reason, you feel lightheaded, your heart is pounding, and you feel as if you're losing your mind or going to die. If you have had that experience, then you know what a panic attack is. If the feelings occur again, they may begin to form a pattern a frightening pattern. Even if it never recurs, the anticipatory fear can be as terrifying as a panic attack itself.
The fear during a panic attack is real and overwhelming. The urge to escape is irresistible, and nothing about it is imaginary. But even if it feels so, it is not life-threatening.
A type of anxiety disorder, panic disorder is diagnosed in people who experience spontaneous, seemingly out-of-the-blue panic attacks and are preoccupied with the fear of a recurring attack. Panic attacks occur unexpectedly, sometimes even during sleep.
Since many of the symptoms of panic disorder mimic those of physical illnesses, such as heart disease, thyroid problems, and breathing disorders, people with panic disorder often make many visits to emergency rooms or doctors' offices, convinced they have a life-threatening illness.
Some people stop going into situations or places in which they've previously had a panic attack in anticipation of it happening again. These people have agoraphobia, and they typically avoid public places where they feel immediate escape might be difficult, such as shopping malls, public transportation, or large sports arenas. Their world may become smaller as they are constantly on guard, waiting for the next panic attack.
Panic disorder is highly treatable. Read about treatment options for panic disorder and other anxiety disorders. Many people find that self-help is also beneficial in regaining control of their lives.
Facing Panic: Self-Help for People with Panic Attacks is a resource that provides steps to help break free from panic. Organized into seven steps, the book guides readers through effective self-help techniques. It also includes charts to use for the tasks and activities recommended to overcome panic attacks.
The author, R. Reid Wilson, PhD, writes that "there are no absolute formulas to follow to conquer panic." And he goes on to say that setbacks are an inevitable part of recovery, but people are successful every time they decide to learn self-help skills or seek out a mental health professional.
Find inspiration in these stories of hope from people who have lived with and overcome panic disorder and agoraphobia:
Read more stories of hope.
Download a brochure about panic disorder, including a self-test.
PLEASE NOTE: The Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA) does not endorse or promote any specific medications or treatments.