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Answering the Question: What is a Panic Attack?

Posted Oct 07 2009 4:41pm

You may have heard the phrase “panic attack” or “panic disorder” before. But you may be left wondering: What is a panic attack? If you’ve experienced one of these attacks or think you may be experiencing them, you know how frightening they can be. Other people may be worried for you at first then become frustrated and blame you for the condition. Once you understand panic attacks better you can help others learn what is happening to you.

Learning First Hand “ What is a Panic Attack?

One long-term sufferer of panic attacks described her first attack as “an intense feeling that I was about to die.” She recalled sitting in a darkened movie theater surrounded by her family and suddenly feeling a tightening in her chest that she believed was a sign of a heart attack. She couldn’t breathe. As soon as the movie ended, she had her family take her to the emergency room where she was diagnosed as being perfectly fine.

This is not an unusual story for people who suffer from panic attacks. The attacks bring on a series of physical sensations – often similar to those described for a heart attack – but which are triggered by the body’s own flight or fight response system.

Usually, the system responds to fearful situations but in the case of a panic attack, the trigger is usually nothing frightening at all and might be something as simple as the fear of having another attack.

So what is a panic attack? The same type of reaction you might have to have life threatening situation but in a situation that could be as harmless as watching a movie, having dinner at a restaurant, or sleeping.

The APA Diagnosis

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), the answer to the question “What is a panic attack?” includes three criteria besides the physical symptoms:

•    The attack must happen suddenly
•    The physical response should be out of proportion to the actual situation
•    The attack should only lasts a few minutes (fear of having more attacks can actually trigger additional, separate attacks within a short time span)

As many as 4 million people in the United States may have suffered from at least one or two panic attacks in their life. For those who suffer from repeat or frequent panic attacks, the condition is elevated to panic disorder. People who have panic disorder and who do not receive proper treatment can continue having worsening panic attacks and can even develop full-blown social phobias.

Taking the Right Steps

If you think you have had or are having a panic attack, your first stop should be your doctor. The symptoms of these attacks are similar to those of serious health problems that might require immediate medical attention. You need to rule that out before deciding you’re only having a panic attack.

Once you’ve ruled out health problems as the cause for your condition, you may need to speak to a mental health professional about the attacks so you begin receiving appropriate treatment. They can also help you further understand what is a panic attack.

By: D. More

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