Panic Attack Symptoms: What Are They?

It is true that almost everyone will have moments during their lives of being panicked or struck with a sudden, unexplained fear that will grip them for a short period of time. However, while such occurrences are likely to happen only on rare occasions, there are those who suffer from repeated attacks of fear or being afraid that is the true culprit of a panic attack.

What is a Panic Attack?

Essentially, a panic attack is an intense feeling of apprehension or fear that is accompanied by one or more of the following symptoms;

  • Dizziness
  • Shortness of Breath
  • Heart Palpitations
  • Feelings of Unreality

A panic attack may last for several minutes up to a few hours depending on the circumstances. Generally speaking, it will be at its worst roughly 10 to 20 minutes from when it begins. While the symptoms may seem severe and debilitating during this time, for most people they will not cause any physical damage or have any long-lasting harmful effects.

Not all panic attacks are alike as some who experience them for the first time may misinterpret the symptoms to that of a nervous breakdown or even a heart attack. However, this type of attack often brings with it the fear of losing sanity, becoming de-personalized or even dying. The onset of a panic attack will often be severe and quite debilitating, reaching its peak after 10 to 20 minutes and then start to fade. However, there may be some residual psychological effects in terms of how a person functions after the panic attack has subsided.

Those who are subject to repeated attacks may have a panic disorder that will need to be addressed to help them overcome the debilitating effects.

What are the Most Common Symptoms? 

There are a number of symptoms that are associated with a panic attack which include, but are not limited to the following;

  • Heart Attack
  • Fear of Dying
  • Faintness
  • Nausea
  • Numbness
  • Hyperventilating
  • Flashing Vision
  • Tunnel Vision
  • Loss of Bodily Control and more

Those who suffer from a panic attack will often have the strong urge to flee which is part of the survival instinct. This is due to the release of hormones, including adrenaline that is designed to help protect against being harmed. An attack of this nature will prompt a release of these hormones that cause a “fight or flight” response.

This type of attack is essentially a response of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) which brings about a number of symptoms apart from the attack itself. Such symptoms include hot or cold flashes, a burning sensation, trembling, tightness or pain in the chest, dizziness and more. There are a number of symptoms that can be felt and each person will have a different combination of them depending on a number of factors.

However, chest pain and the shortness of breath are the most common symptoms when a panic attack begins. In many cases, the person suffering from such an attack will believe these to be symptoms of a heart attack which may cause greater anxiety. It is quite common for people who have never experienced a panic attack before to go to the hospital and be examined which often discovers the true cause for their chest pain and shortness of breath.

Another hallmark of panic attacks is their intensity and unique nature where they can be repeated. Quite often, those who have anxiety disorders or other similar conditions will suffer from a panic attack. However, those who suffer from panic attacks are not necessarily the victims of mental disorders as there is no direct association.

Causes of the Attacks

There are a number of causes that create the conditions for a panic attack to occur. In some cases, the conditions that cause the attack are not repeated. However, a person who suffers from one panic attack in their lives is more likely to experience another one. Most people who experience panic attacks will do so starting as a young adult, although it can happen at any age.

Environmental: An overly cautious view of their surroundings perhaps as expressed by their parents combined with the stress over the years have led to panic attacks occurring in people. In addition, panic attacks occur in those who believe something bad is going to happen. This is a type of “what-if” thinking that leads to panic attacks that may be grounded in their view of the world.

Biological: There are people who have biological causes to being susceptible to panic attacks which include, but are not limited to the following;

  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Hypoglycemia and Hyperthyroidism
  • Wilson’s Disease and Mitral Valve Prolepses
  • Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome and Pheochromocytoma
  • Inner Ear Disturbances and more

Each of these biological conditions may have been caused by stressful forces that the person experienced previously and now leave them more vulnerable to a panic attack.

Phobias: Panic attacks occur fairly frequently in those who have a specific phobia or fear from which they are exposed.

Personal Loss: Losing a loved one, undergoing a traumatic life changing event or transition also leaves a person more vulnerable to having a panic attack.

Hyperventilation: Over breathing and exhaling too much carbon dioxide may trigger the symptoms of a panic attack in certain people. Rapid breathing which is accompanied by dizziness and a faster than normal heart beat may cause the attack symptoms to occur.

In addition, panic attacks may be caused by certain situations such as feelings of danger that have been experienced by the person previously. For example, being in a bad car accident in the past and now facing similar circumstances on the road which brings back the feelings of the previous accident may trigger an attack.

Other causes include suffering from a chronic or serious illness that actually puts a person in a more vulnerable emotional and physical state that is conducive to panic attacks occurring. This often occurs with those who suffer from cardiac issues where an actual heart attack may be difficult to distinguish from a panic attack.

While many people experience panic attacks, they are very rarely serious and few will cause any lasting damage to the body.

About Jason

As "The Man That Men Will Talk To," Jason Fierstein, MA, LPC is a private practice counselor and psychotherapist for men and couples in the greater Phoenix, Arizona, area. He works with struggling men to find happiness in their lives, and with their wives.
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