The symptoms of a panic attack appear suddenly, without any apparent cause. They may include
Racing or pounding heartbeat
Dizziness, lightheadedness, nausea
Tingling or numbness in the hands
Flushes or chills
Dreamlike sensations or perceptual distortions
Terror--a sense that something unimaginably horrible is about to occur and one is powerless to prevent it
Fear of losing control and doing something embarrassing
Fear of dying
depersonalization and derealisation
A panic attack typically lasts for several minutes and is one of the most distressing conditions that a person can experience. Most who have one attack will have others. When someone has repeated attacks, or feels severe anxiety about having another attack, he or she is said to have panic disorder.
What happens during a panic attack?
The physiologic factors involved stem around arousal of the autonomic nervous system in the manner of a 'fight or flight' response to fearful inner impulses and emotions. This stress response results in the characteristic body sensations often seen in a person in a panic attack.
Panic attacks are often associated with physical symptoms such as shaking, a feeling your heart is pounding or racing, sweating, chest pain, shortness of breath, a feeling of choking, nausea, cramping, diarrhea, dizziness, an out-of-body sensation (a feeling of being apart from oneself), tingling in the hands, chills or hot flashes, and headache. A person may also have an extreme fear of losing control, going crazy or dying during a panic attack. It is very rare for a person to have all of these symptoms at once, although the presence of at least 4 symptoms strongly suggests the diagnosis of panic disorder.
Once panic starts, stresses that normally would have been small and manageable become overwhelming. A palpable, screaming fear rises inside and for no apparent reason; sufferers feel they are being choked by a panic that races the heart and paralyzes. Not surprisingly, they begin to fear the attacks themselves. This can lead to agoraphobia. Agoraphobia occurs when a person finds it difficult to leave home or another safe area because of the fear of having a panic attack in public or of not having an easy way to escape if the symptoms start.
Many of the symptoms that occur during a panic attack are the same as the symptoms of diseases of the heart, lung, intestine or nervous system. The similarities of panic disorder to other diseases may add to the person's fear and anxiety during and after a panic attack. Panic is not necessarily brought on by a recognizable circumstance, and it may remain a mystery to the person involved. These attacks come 'out of the blue'. At other times, excessive stress or other negative life conditions can trigger an attack.
Nowadays, panic attacks and agoraphobia can be treated successfully in the majority of cases. In fact, it is estimated that the appropriate therapy from a knowledgeable therapist helps close to 90% of panic attack sufferers.