Panic attack

Medical Specialties: Family practice, Internal medicine, Psychiatry


Clinical Definition

A panic attack, provoked by catastrophic misinterpretations of bodily sensations, is a core feature of the psychiatric condition known as panic disorder.  Marked by a period of intense fear or discomfort that strikes suddenly, often in a milieu where nothing threatening exists, the sense of danger is so intense during a panic attack that those affected may feel they are having a myocardial infarction or are going to die.  Symptoms include diaphoresis, dyspnea, tachycardia and, syncope. Medication and cognitive therapy are the mainstays of treatment.


In Our Own Words

Panic attacks occur in up to 30 to 50 percent of individuals over a lifetime, and they are about twice as common in woman as among men, but plenty of men get them.

A panic attack is an overwhelming feeling of intense fear or discomfort, even though the environment may be familiar. To someone who experiences a panic attack, it can feel like they’re about to die or go crazy, which can have widespread impact on their life.

Physical signs of the anxiety include shortness of breath, dizziness, numbness or tingling, stomach upset, hot flashes and a racing heart. Panic attack is a core feature of panic disorder, a psychiatric condition, but many people have panic attacks without having panic disorder. Panic tends to run in families and often it’s mixed with depression or alcohol and substance abuse.

Treatment includes medications to treat anxiety and depression, as well as cognitive or ''talk'' therapy and stress reduction. The therapy focuses on learning about the illness, keeping anxiety-inducing situations in check, rethinking the interpretation of the situation and learning to become more comfortable with situations previously thought to be frightening.

Relevant Conditions
  • Agoraphobia
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Panic disorder
  • Palpitations
  • Stress
Side Effects
  • Sweating
  • Shortness of breath
  • Rapid heartbeat, palpitations
  • Numbness, tingling
  • Fear of losing control, dying, going crazy
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