Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder

Understanding Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder

A panic attack is a sudden intense rush of fear or dread. During a panic attack people experience strong physiological and psychological symptoms that include some or all of the following:

  • Pounding heart
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Shortness of breath or smothering sensations
  • A feeling of choking
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Nausea, stomach upset, or a feeling of needing to go to the toilet
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness, or faintness
  • Wobbly legs
  • Feelings of unreality or feeling detached from yourself
  • Fear of doing something uncontrolled like crying or screaming or fainting
  • Fear that you will embarrass yourself
  • Fear that you will go crazy
  • Fear that you will die – eg have a heart attack or a stroke
  • Numbness or tingling sensations, such as pins and needles
  • Chills or hot flushes
  • Visual changes
  • Freezing or feeling paralysed

Many people have one or two panic attacks occasionally without becoming particularly disturbed by them. Others find panic very disturbing, and worry about having further panic attacks. This is when panic attacks become classified as Panic Disorder. Sufferers of Panic Disorder frequently avoid situations where they have had panic attacks before, or where they are afraid they may have a panic attack in future. Situations commonly avoided include:

  • Being outside the house alone
  • Being in a crowd, or standing in a line
  • Going over a bridge
  • Travelling in a car, bus, train, or plane
  • Being in a confined space such as a lift
  • Exercising, drinking coffee, or doing anything that increases heart rate or body temperature, etc.

Although panic attacks feel overwhelming and extreme, Panic Disorder is a highly treatable condition. It is well understood psychologically, and very effective psychological treatments are available. With effective treatment, the vast majority of people stop experiencing panic attacks, and regain the freedom to do the things that they would like to do with their life.

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