Panic Attack Symptoms, Causes, Treatment, Statistics
Panic Attack (Panic Disorder) Symptoms, Causes, Treatment, Information, Help, and Statistics
What are panic attacks?
A panic attack is a sudden feeling of overwhelming dread, anxiety, and fear, as if something inexplicably horrible is about to happen.
Panic attacks and their signs and symptoms can last from a few moments to many hours. The length of panic attack is generally determined by how frightened a person is and how they react to what it is they are afraid of, including the panic attack itself. The greater the reaction, the longer and more powerful the panic attack and symptoms.
Panic attacks can be powerful, frightening, and like they are out of your control. Those who experience panic attacks quickly learn that they can be highly unpleasant experiences.
Even so, panic attacks (Panic Disorder) can be successfully treated. No one needs to suffer needlessly. More on this in a moment.
The term Panic Disorder (also referred to as Panic Attacks Disorder and Panic Attack Disorder) is used when attacks occur frequently and create problems in a person’s life. More on this in a moment, as well.
Panic attacks disorder signs and symptoms
Panic attacks disorder can include a wide range of signs and symptoms, including:
- A feeling of overwhelming fear
- Feeling like you are going crazy or losing control
- Fear that you are going crazy, going to die, or pass out
- Feeling like you are in grave danger
- Feeling like you are dying
- Feeling you might pass out
- A surge of doom and gloom
- An overpowering sense of dread
- Feeling like things are surreal
- Feeling like you are losing touch with reality
- Feeling like you need to urgently escape
- Heart Palpitations
- Trembling, shaking
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pressure or pain
- Turning pale
- Weak in the knees
- Burning skin
- Pins and needles
- Hot and cold flashes
- Numbness and tingling sensations
The above panic attack disorder symptoms and signs can be accompanied by:
- Choking sensation, tightening throat, it feels like your throat is closing, it feels like something is stuck in your throat
- Depersonalization (feeling detached from reality, separate from one-self, separate from normal emotions)
- Derealization (feeling unreal, in a dream-like state)
- Dizziness, lightheadedness, unsteadiness
- Emotional distress
- Emotional upset
- Inability to calm yourself down
- Knot in the stomach, tight stomach
- Panicky feeling
- Pounding, racing heart
- Butterflies in the stomach
- Sudden urge to go to the bathroom (urinate, defecate)
- Feel like crying
- Feel like freaking out
This list is not exhaustive.
As you can see, there are many physical, psychological, and emotional signs and symptoms of panic attacks. Click the link for a more comprehensive list of anxiety symptoms and descriptions of what they feel like.
Are panic attack disorder symptoms serious?
No. Even though the symptoms of panic attack disorder can seem odd, disturbing, powerful, and seemingly out of control, they aren’t serious or harmful.
Panic attack disorder symptoms in men
While it may seem like men and women experience different panic attack disorder symptoms, they don’t. Since each person is somewhat chemically unique, signs and symptoms of a panic attack can vary from person to person, and even from men to women.
Panic attack disorder symptoms in women
As mentioned above, panic attack disorder symptoms can be similar for women and men. But because each person is somewhat chemically unique, each person can have a unique set of panic attack disorder symptoms and intensities.
However, women may experience more frequent, stronger, and more panic attacks and their symptoms nearing or during their monthly menstruation cycle, if they are taking Hormone Replacement Therapy, if pregnant or postpartum, or when in perimenopause or menopause.
Panic attack disorder symptoms in teenagers
All age groups experience panic attacks, including children, teenagers, and the elderly. In fact, it's thought that everyone experiences at least two panic attacks in their lifetime, with panic attack disorder sufferers experiencing a great deal more.
Panic attack disorder symptoms vs heart attack
Panic attack symptoms and heart attack symptoms can seem similar because their signs and symptoms can be similar. Most medical professionals, however, can quickly tell the difference between their symptoms as heart attacks have distinct symptoms that aren’t panic attack like. If you are unsure of which is panic attack symptoms and which is heart attack symptoms, seek immediate medical advice. If the doctor believes your symptoms are those of a panic attack, you can feel confident his or her diagnosis is correct. Therefore, there is no need to worry about a heart attack.
Can you have a panic attack and its signs and symptoms at night?
Yes, you can have a panic attack and its symptoms anytime, even at night and when sleeping. Waking up with a panic attack and its symptoms is a common occurrence for panic disorder sufferers.
What causes panic disorder and its signs and symptoms?
Behaving in an apprehensive manner produces the physiological, psychological, and emotional state of anxiety. When we behave apprehensively (worried, fretful, concerned, afraid), the body activates the stress response, which secretes stress hormones into the bloodstream where they travel to targeted spots in the body to bring about specific changes that enhance the body’s ability to deal with danger. The stress response is often referred to as the fight or flight response because of how it equips the body to either fight with or flee from danger.
When we are mildly concerned (worried, afraid), the stress response produces a mild reaction in the body. When we are greatly concerned/worried/afraid, the stress response produces a dramatic reaction in the body. Since the stress response is directly proportional to the degree of worry, a panic attack and its symptoms are generally the result of serious worry, concern, and fear.
So it's the ongoing serious worry that generally causes panic attacks. These types of attacks are called voluntary panic attacks: when our worry has activated a dramatic stress response reaction.
Moreover, persistently elevated stress can also cause a panic attack. These types of attacks are called involuntary panic attacks, meaning that the body has involuntarily triggered an attack all by itself due to being overly stressed.
The most common form of panic attacks is the voluntary panic attacks type with the involuntary panic attacks type being less common.
Involuntary panic attacks typically are those that occur ‘out of the blue’ and seemingly for no apparent reason. Voluntary panic attacks are always preceded by worry, such as that caused by imagining something horrible could happen…even though you may not be aware that you worried prior to the panic attack.
For more information about panic and panic disorder, and how to stop an attack and treat panic disorder, you can read Chapters 3, 4, 5, and 6 in the Recovery Support area of our website, where we explain panic disorder in more detail.
What is panic disorder?
Most people will experience at least one or two panic attacks in their lifetime. This is normal. Panic disorder occurs when panic attacks occur more frequently and interfere with a normal lifestyle. In other words, when panic attacks cause regular disruption to a normal lifestyle, it is considered as Panic Disorder (PD).
According to the Canadian Statistics website:
“Panic disorder is diagnosed if the individual has recurrent panic attacks (minimum four in a four-week period), and at least one of the attacks is accompanied by one or more physical symptoms, including persistent concern about having another attack, worry about the implication or consequences of the attack (i.e., having a heart attack), and/or a significant change in behaviour due to the attacks, such as quitting a job.7 In addition, the panic attacks cannot be due to the physiological effects of a substance or another general medical condition.”
It’s important to keep in mind that Panic Disorder should NOT be equated with having a medical, biological, chemical, or genetic condition. Panic Disorder simply means you are having difficulty with panic attacks. Panic Disorder is just a term psychologists and psychiatrists came up with to classify people who struggle with panic attacks.
Panic Disorder is NOT a medical term, but a term used to describe a mental health issue.
While you may have been diagnosed as having Panic Disorder, this just means you have overly anxious behaviors that cause episodes of high degree fear. It doesn’t mean you are somehow mentally deficient or have some serious mental illness.
A common cause of panic disorder is becoming afraid of the sensations and feelings of a panic attack. Since panic attacks are generally caused by worry and fear, worrying about and being afraid of panic fuels panic disorder.
Panic disorder often occurs when we become afraid of the strong feelings associated with panic attacks.
Visit our ‘anxiety disorders’ page for more information about the various disorders.
Do I have panic disorder?
People who regularly experience panic attacks are said to have panic disorder. You can take our Panic Attack Disorder test to see if your panic attacks would be classified as having Panic Disorder.
How to stop a panic attack and its symptoms?
Since panic attacks are either caused by overly anxious thinking or an overly stressed body, which we call stress-response hyperstimulation, we can stop them by eliminating our overly anxious thinking and by reducing the body’s stress.
For example, once you notice you are scaring yourself with anxious thinking, you can change your thinking to calming thoughts, which will stop stress responses and their physiological, psychological, and emotional effects. As you calm yourself down, your body will follow by stopping the flow of stress hormones. As stress hormones are used up or expelled, the sensations, symptoms, and feelings of panic will subside…in time.
It may take up to 30 minutes or more for a major panic attack to end, so you will need to be patient as you calm yourself down and wait for the signs and symptoms of a panic attack to subside.
There are other ways to stop panic attacks, as well. Including:
- Reduce your stress and give your body time to respond.
- Relax breath. Relax breathing (slowly breathing from your stomach) will stop stress responses. Then, it’s just a matter of time until your body calms down.
- Calm yourself down. As we mentioned, calming yourself down will bring an end to panic…in time.
- Relax your body as much as you can. Relaxing stops the stress response.
- Go for a walk. Leisure walking can shut of the stress response.
- Focus on something near you. Changing your focus to something near you will stop anxious thinking. As anxious thinking ceases, so will the accompanying stress responses.
- Reducing your body’s stress overall will prevent involuntary panic attacks.
- Remember that panic attacks aren’t harmful. They are just strong reactions to worry and fear.
- Remember, panic attacks ALWAYS end. The more you calm yourself down, the faster they end.
- The most important thing you can do is learn to stop scaring yourself with worry. Worry is the number one cause of panic attacks. Containing your worry – which we explain in the Recovery Support area – is a great way to eliminate problematic worry and panic attacks.
- Yes, panic attacks can feel awful, intense, and threatening. But they aren’t harmful and generally pass when the body calms down. And yes, they can range in number, intensity, and frequency with each person experiencing a unique set of panic attack symptoms. But panic attacks and their symptoms can be overcome for good by getting the right information, help, and support. We provide more detailed information in the Recovery Support area of our website.
How to prevent panic attacks
As we mentioned above, we can prevent panic by keeping ourselves calm, learning to stop scaring ourselves with worry, and by keeping the body’s stress level within a normal range.
When we stop triggering stress responses by overly anxious and worrisome thinking, and by keeping the body’s stress within a healthy range, we prevent panic attacks from starting.
Avoiding stimulants is also helpful, as stimulants activate the body’s stress response, which can aggravate panic disorder.
Panic Attacks Disorder treatment
Since panic attacks are caused by overly apprehensive behavior or chronic stress, addressing our overly apprehensive behavior and stress can stop and prevent panic attacks, and eventually, panic disorder. The combination of good self-help information and therapy is the most effective way of addressing overly apprehensive behavior. Accessing good self-help information and applying it is a good way to reduce stress.
Panic disorder is highly treatable. There’s not only a lot you can do on your own with good self-help information (when you understand panic disorder, its symptoms and cause), working with an experienced panic disorder therapist produces excellent results.
No one needs to suffer needlessly. If you are struggling with panic disorder, seek the appropriate help and work toward success.
While there are also medications that can help reduce symptoms of panic disorder, medications should never be considered as a cure. Since panic disorder primarily caused by overly apprehensive behavior, addressing the behavior addresses the panic disorder problem.
Anyone can stop and prevent panic attacks when they get the right information, help, and support.
Panic Attack Disorder statistics
Panic attacks are common. Research has found that most people experience at least two panic attacks in their lifetime.
Many people experience their first panic attack due a build up of chronic stress. Anxious personalities often then become afraid of them, which further stresses the body. As fear and stress increase, so does the likelihood of a subsequent panic attack. This scenario is a common catalyst into Panic Attack Disorder: becoming afraid of the feelings and symptoms of a panic attack, which causes further panic attacks.
2.7 percent of adults in the United States experience Panic Attack Disorder.
1 – 2 percent of adults in Canada experience Panic Disorder.
4 percent of Canadians experience Panic Disorder at least once in their lifetime.
Panic attacks generally start between the ages of 14 and 25, but they can start anytime, including in childhood and well into adulthood. Many children remember having a panic attack even at the age of 5 or younger. It’s just that they didn’t know what it was then.
Discuss your panic attack disorder symptoms with your doctor
Because involuntary panic attacks can be caused by other medical conditions, such as mitral valve prolapse, thyroid problems, hyperglycemia, side effects from certain types of medications, recreational drug use (such as marijuana), stimulants, etc., it’s best to discuss your panic attacks and symptoms with your doctor to rule out any medical cause.
Since most doctors can easily tell the difference between panic attack symptoms and those caused by medical conditions, if your doctor diagnoses your symptoms as panic attack related only, you can feel confident there isn’t a medical cause.
Panic attacks that are initiated by a medical condition can be prevented by addressing the medical condition. For more information, discuss solutions with your doctor if your panic attacks are started by a medical condition.
The combination of good self-help information and working with an experienced anxiety disorder coach, counselor, or therapist is the most effective way to address anxiety disorder and its many symptoms. Until the core causes of anxiety are addressed - the underlying factors that motivate apprehensive behavior - a struggle with anxiety disorder can return again and again. Identifying and successfully addressing anxiety's underlying factors is the best way to overcome problematic anxiety.
For more information about our Anxiety Counseling option; our Available Anxiety Therapists; to Book An Appointment with one of our anxiety therapists; common Anxiety Signs and Symptoms; common Anxiety Attack Symptoms; the symptoms of panic attack disorder; anxiety Recovery Support area; information about Anxiety; and our Anxiety 101 section; or click on the appropriate link or graphic below:
”CBT can be recommended as a gold standard in the psychotherapeutic treatment of patients with anxiety disorders." - Otte, Christian. "Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in Anxiety Disorders: Current State of the Evidence." Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience. Les Laboratoires Servier, Dec. 2011. Web. 14 Sept. 2016.
DISCLAIMER: Because each body is somewhat chemically unique, and because each person will have a unique mix of symptoms and underlying factors, recovery results may vary. Variances can occur for many reasons, including due to the severity of the condition, the ability of the person to apply the recovery concepts, and the commitment to making behavioral change.
Authors: Jim Folk, Marilyn Folk, BScN. Last updated January 1, 2019.