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.

We don't yet know what exactly causes panic disorder. Genetics, stress, and certain components of your brain function may all play a role. Common risk factors include significant life stressors, a history of abuse, or traumatic events such as the death of a loved one. For the 2-6 million American who suffer from panic disorder, symptoms tend to being in adolescence or around age 30. Women are also affected more than men.

Because panic attacks can severely compromise your quality of life, it's important to seek treatment. Medications, psychotherapy and relaxation techniques are all effective techniques that have been shown to relieve panic attacks over time. In addition, there are important lifestyle modifications you can make that help reduce anxiety - and with any luck, the occurrences of attacks.

  • Meditation, deep breathing, guided imagery and yoga have all been shown to be effective stress management techniques. When you train your mind and body to relax, it can be easier to control and panic attacks over time. Click here to learn more about these alternative medicine techniques.     
  • Exercise is another great stress reliever. Regular physical activity has been shown to calm nerves and boost mood. Try Dr. Oz's 20-minute workout.
  • Cut out alcohol, caffeine and illegal stimulants - all of these substances can trigger panic attacks and exacerbate anxiety. For help reducing your caffeine intake, visit Dr. Oz's Caffeine Detox Challenge.
  • Invest in good sleep hygiene. Being overtired can contribute to anxiety and panic. Getting enough sleep can help ward off unwanted attacks. To learn more about establishing good sleep hygiene, click here.

Most importantly, if you are having symptoms of panic attacks, it's important to seek medical help. Underlying conditions including adrenal or thyroid problems can create symptoms that mimic panic attacks. Appropriate blood tests can help diagnose the root cause of your panic and guide you to the proper treatment plan.