Recognizing Signs Of A Panic Attack

By:    Published: December 6, 2012

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A panic attack is an episode of the most intense fear a person has ever experienced. There are definite physical symptoms associated with a panic attack and most people who have them say that they seem to appear suddenly, though science has identified subtle signs that a panic attack is going to occur. People who experience panic attacks often feel as if they are having a heart attack or that they are dying.

The vast majority of people who suffer from panic attacks only have a few over their entire lifetime. If they happen more frequently, it could be an indication that the person has a panic disorder.

It is estimated by the National Institute of Mental Health that about six million people in the United States suffer from panic attacks each year, making them one of the most common mental health problems.

Early Signs Of A Panic Attack

One of the hallmarks of panic attacks is how suddenly they appear. However, a recent study out of Southern Methodist University in Dallas suggests that there may be subtle warning signs that an attack is about to occur, but that people don't notice them. The study found that in the hour before a panic attack occurs, people experience up to 15 different physiological changes in their body, but they are so subtle that they go unnoticed.

The same study also showed that people who experience panic attacks chronically hyperventilate, having abnormally low levels of CO2 in their bodies. A marked increase in the CO2 levels were seen before the start of an attack and this can induce feelings of suffocation and panic. Patients in this study reported that the attacks occurred suddenly and that they had no knowledge of the physiological changes that occurred immediately prior to the attack. This study also found that the majority of the physiological changes occurred before the onset of the attack, with few changes noted during the attack.

This study is significant not only because the methodology was unique, examining the physiological data of the time period immediately before the attack, but because it could provide possible insight into other problems that seem to have sudden onsets such as seizures or strokes.

Early physical signs of a panic attack include changes in breathing, notably slower respiration which allows CO2 in the body to rise, heart rate and sweating. These changes are very subtle, and usually go unnoticed by the person experiencing the attack.

Physical Signs Of Panic Attacks

The physical symptoms of a panic attack are remarkably similar to a heart attack. They include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Palpitations
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Sweating
  • Chills
  • Hot flashes
  • Hyperventilation
  • Headache
  • Abdominal cramping or nausea
  • Trembling

The most common psychological symptoms of panic attacks include:

  • A feeling of loss of control
  • Feeling like one is about to die
  • A feeling of extreme danger or doom
  • Feeling the need to escape the situation or location
  • A feeling that one is going crazy or that things are unreal

Is It A Panic Attack, Or Something Else?

The physiological feelings experienced during a panic attack can often mimic the symptoms of other very serious conditions such as heart attacks or breathing problems. So how is a person to know if what they are experiencing is a real physical problem or just a panic attack?

According to Reid Wilson, Ph. D., director of the Anxiety Disorders Treatment center, the goal for patients who have both a history of panic attacks and heart attacks is to determine the symptoms that should prompt an immediate trip to the emergency room, and those that can be written off as a panic attack. Dr. Wilson suggests that people who are concerned about heart attacks should have a thorough physical examination to determine the overall health of their heart, before beginning the psychological work of determining what symptoms that individual should take seriously and which are likely a panic attack.

Research has identified a link between panic disorders and heart attacks. It seems that those who have panic attacks or a panic disorder that is diagnosed before the age of 50 also have an increased risk of developing heart disease or having heart attacks, though the exact reason for this is unknown.

Mark Pollack, M.D., a member of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), believes that this link can be helpful in treating panic disorders. By treating the disorder, he asserts that it's possible to reduce the risk of heart attacks. He believes that those who are uncertain about whether or not they are having a heart attack should err on the side of caution and head to the hospital to be checked out.

Ultimately the only way to know if what a person is experiencing a heart attack or panic attack is to be examined and tested at a hospital. Once a cardiac or other physical health problem is eliminated, psychological treatment can begin.

When To Seek Help

Those who experience any of the symptoms of a panic attack for the first time should seek medical attention. This is the only way to determine whether they are experiencing a heart attack or not. People who have these experiences more than once, but are given a clean bill of physical health, should seek psychological help. Panic attacks are nearly impossible to manage without professional help and they can become worse over time if left untreated, dramatically effecting quality of life.

If a person knows what triggers a panic attack, simply avoiding those triggers may help, but it can also significantly impact a person's life. The best ways to prevent further attacks is to get on a treatment plan and stick with it, and take good physical care of one's self. Panic attacks are frightening and debilitating, but they are also treatable. With treatment, a person can learn to recognize the signs of a panic attack and be assured that the panic attack will be over shortly.

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