What is a Panic Attack?

by Eileen Bailey Health Writer

Panic attacks are not usually caused by a certain object or event, but often come with no warning and for no reason. People that suffer from panic attacks frequently fear another attack. This fear can cause them to avoid situations they feel may trigger an attack.

But what actually happens during a panic attack?

When a panic attack begins, it is as if the person experiences the "flight or fight" response to a situation, however, the symptoms occur for no reason. The person may be in no danger and, in fact, panic attacks can sometimes occur during sleep. According to the American Psychological Association, some of the symptoms of a panic attack include:

  • racing heartbeat

  • difficulty breathing, feeling as though you 'can't get enough air'

  • terror that is almost paralyzing

  • dizziness, lightheadedness or nausea

  • trembling, sweating, shaking

  • choking, chest pains

  • hot flashes, or sudden chills

  • tingling in fingers or toes ('pins and needles')

  • fear that you're going to go crazy or are about to die

Panic attacks occur without warning. The person having a panic attack cannot stop the symptoms and experience fear that is either unrelated to the situation or out of proportion to the actual event.
Although the panic attack usually only lasts a few minutes (the body cannot sustain this level of anxiety for more than that), recurrent attacks can occur over and over for several hours.

Panic attacks are not normally dangerous, but are extremely frightening for the person experiencing it, however, when not treated, can lead to more serious problems, for example:

  • Higher risk of alcohol or drug abuse

  • Higher risk of suicide attempts

People that suffer from panic attacks also are more often financial dependent on other people, spend more time in hospital emergency rooms and may be afraid of driving.

Panic attacks can be treated with both cognitive and behavioral therapies and in some cases, medication. Treatment normally lasts between six to nine months, however, some people may require treatment for several years or for their lifetime.

If you, or someone you know are suffering from panic attacks, speak with your physician about what type of treatment might work for you. Diagnosis is based upon a person experiencing at least two panic attacks, without cause, and a fear of having another attack.


Answers to Your Questions About Panic Disorder, 2008, American Psychological Association

Panic Attacks, Panic Disorder and Agoraphobia, American Academy of Family Physicians

Eileen Bailey
Meet Our Writer
Eileen Bailey

Eileen Bailey is an award-winning author of six books on health and parenting topics and freelance writer specializing in health topics including ADHD, Anxiety, Sexual Health, Skin Care, Psoriasis and Skin Cancer. Her wish is to provide readers with relevant and practical information on health conditions to help them make informed decisions regarding their health care.