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What Is a Panic Attack?

What is a panic attack? Get a detailed description of a panic attack plus discover the difference between anxiety and panic attacks.

What is a panic attack? A panic attack is a serious condition that comes on suddenly, without warning. It's different from the normal reactions of fear and anxiety we have in response to stressful life events. Symptoms are extremely intense, lasting around 10 minutes for most people. But some panic attacks can last longer, or occur one after another, making it difficult to discern when one ends and another begins.

Essence of a Panic Attack

During a panic attack, sudden feelings of terror and fear overcome the person and he or she is gripped by a sense of losing control. The heart races; the person may experience chest pains, shortness of breath, nausea, and dizziness. The individual frequently feels as if he or she might die, have a heart attack or stroke, choke to death, or pass out. Once the panic attack peaks, symptoms begin to subside and the person slowly begins to regain control. In other words, the individual responds with fear and terror far out of proportion for the given situation, which is often not a threatening one at all.

Difference Between Anxiety and Panic Attacks

People often think of anxiety attacks and panic attacks as the same thing, when in fact, they're very different. Anxiety and panic attacks have many of the same, or similar, symptoms, but an anxiety attack usually comes in response to a particular environmental stressor. A police officer stops you for an out-of-date inspection sticker, but you know you also have an outstanding speeding ticket. This scenario can cause apprehension and fear, but these feelings quickly dissipate once the cop hands you the citation for the expired inspection sticker without checking for outstanding tickets.

A panic attack, however, comes upon an individual unprovoked. People who suffer from panic attacks may start avoiding activities or places where they have had panic attacks before, such as weekly get-togethers with a group of friends or the gas station. Certainly, avoiding these and other places in fear of having another panic attack, called anticipatory anxiety, can adversely affect an individual's quality of life. (read: Panic Disorder with Agoraphobia: Panic Disorder to the Max)

Panic Attack Help and Treatment

If you have symptoms of a panic attack, seek medical attention. It's nearly impossible to manage them on your own and the intensity and frequency may worsen over time. Additionally, panic attack symptoms look similar to those associated with other, more serious, health conditions. It's important to have a physician evaluate your symptoms to determine the underlying cause.

Additional Panic Attack Information

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next: Panic Attack Symptoms, Warning Signs of Panic Attacks
~ all articles on panic disorder
~ all articles on anxiety disorders

Last Updated: 30 June 2016
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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