Understanding Panic Attacks

How to identify and prevent a terrifying medical condition.

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You break out into a sweat. Your heart is racing. You're trembling, nauseated, and dizzy. These feelings can all be part of your body's natural fear response. Yet for some, a sudden episode of fear develops into something more severe: a panic attack. A panic attack can make you feel like you are losing control - or even dying. Most people will have no more than one or two severe panic episodes in their lifetime. However, if you are having frequent panic attacks it could mean that you have an anxiety disorder, specifically, panic disorder.

People with panic disorder describe episodes of intense fear that strike suddenly and repeatedly with no warning and perhaps for no obvious reason. These kinds of panic attacks are now recognized as a debilitating medication condition - it's not just stress.

The symptoms of a panic attack begin suddenly without warning and tend to peak within 10 minutes. For half an hour or more, you may feel your heart pounding in your chest, shortness of breath, sweatiness, lightheadedness, difficulty swallowing - all with a sense of impending death or bodily harm. Because these attacks seem to come out of the blue, for many sufferers the worst part is fear of another sudden attack. This explains why panic disorder can escalate into a vicious cycle - one terrifying attack leaves you dreading another episode.

When this happens, people with panic disorder may try to avoid certain situations out of fear that they will have another attack. In severe cases, panic attack sufferers can become unable to leave their homes or enter public spaces. This fear is known as agoraphobia. Sometime no place can feel safe.