What Are Panic Attacks?

Your heart begins to beat faster. You have trouble catching your breath. Sweat breaks out. You feel a distinct pain in your chest. You feel ready to faint as the world slowly spins. Panic attacks can occur out of nowhere, for no reason, sending the world around you spinning. Some panic attacks are smaller – these are called limited-symptom panic attacks, where you’re feeling distinctly uncomfortable, and are experiencing four or fewer symptoms of a full-blown panic attack. At other times, panic attacks can feel life-threatening – the fear can be so intense that you’re sure you will die.

Panic attacks are random, occurring at times of intense stress, and out of nowhere in a state of absolute calm. Sometimes, a panic attack points towards a possible panic disorder. The attack may also be a symptom of a different anxiety disorder. Panic attacks are a physical reaction to stress, both external and internal, and they evoke the fight-or-flight system. That feeling of intense and sudden terror is what makes us react faster and run for our lives (and at times freeze up) in the fear of explicit and sudden danger. However, some people experience brain disorders that cause this signal for flight to occur without any external stimuli in place. This makes you react as though you are in life-threatening danger, without any danger present. Panic attacks can feel like heart attacks, and although they’re not usually fatal, over time they can stress the body. Thankfully, they’re very treatable. But ignore them, and they could get worse.

What a Panic Attack Feels Like

Panic attacks are a physical reaction to stress, even when no stress is present. The body reacts as it would in a situation of extreme fear. You may feel like you’re dying, but you’re not. You’re panicking.

It all starts with adrenaline, which the adrenal glands pump into the bloodstream. In reaction to fear, the body begins to get to work. First, you start to sweat while your heartrate jumps, causing you to breathe harder to get more oxygen into your blood as it pumps through your body. Requiring a boost in energy, your blood sugar spikes. Your senses get sharper, and seconds feel like minutes. You start to shake. Out of nowhere, your heart and lungs are working so hard that you can feel spikes in your chest. You start to look around. If you know what’s happening, then the fact that you’re conscious of the panic will make it worse. If you mistake it for something else – like a fatal heart attack – then fear will make it even worse.

Although panic attacks usually only last a few minutes, their effects can linger for hours. You’ll feel exhausted and shaky yet wired. By some estimates, your adrenaline jumps to over twice the normal amount when you’re going through a panic attack. This goes for random panic attacks as well, which can send your body into a fight-or-flight reaction from a completely calm state of mind.

Why Panic Attacks Happen

Usually, panic attacks occur in response to stress. That’s the simplest explanation for why they occur – when a person struggles with an anxiety disorder, from generalized anxiety to panic disorder, they perceive threats and possibilities as much more distinct and dangerous than they actually are. What might be a nigh-impossible worst outcome will manifest itself as an unavoidable doom. What might be a minor challenge to most can seem impossible to overcome for those with anxiety. It takes a normal perception of reality and warps it, causing everything to cast an intimidating shadow several times its own size.

As such, most panic attacks are in response to a sudden influx of stress that, while uncomfortable to most, may be perceived as incredibly dangerous to some.

But there are cases of panic attacks occurring for absolutely no reason. You may start breathing quickly, gasping, and crying, your heart suddenly beating much faster than just a few seconds ago – despite sitting in your room, calm and completely unbothered.

Panic attacks sometimes begin long before they are actually palpable. Sometimes, the heart starts to beat just a smidge faster for a good half hour or more before the panic comes. Most of the time, when it comes to random panic attacks, the trigger may be an underlying thought process (even something as minor as remembering something you had forgotten to do), an underlying physical factor (too much caffeine that day, having just come back from a heavy cardio session, going for a run), or a psychological factor (certain anxiety disorders can cause random panic attacks, for reasons that are not quite clear yet, but likely have to do with neurobiology).

How Common are Panic Attacks?

Panic attacks happen most often in people diagnosed with a panic disorder, but they can happen in many other illnesses. While having a panic attack doesn’t immediately qualify you for a disorder, they’re most likely to happen if you’re struggling with a phobia, post-traumatic stress, or an anxiety disorder of some kind. People with depression and bipolar disorder may also experience panic attacks in times of high stress, and panic attacks have even been listed as common for people struggling with irritable bowel syndrome, perhaps due to the link between the gut and the brain. Sleep disorders are another issue that may lead to more frequent panic attacks due to improper sleep, or total lack of sleep.

If you have been regularly experiencing panic attacks and have other symptoms that may point toward a mental health issue, consider getting help to find out what you’re dealing with. If you were previously diagnosed with something like depression but have been getting more frequent panic attacks, these may be another symptom of the depression rather than being related to another problem. Try to trace the origin of the attacks to a source, if you can.

When Panic Becomes a Disorder

Panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder characterized by frequent panic attacks, usually out of nowhere. If you’re struggling with a panic disorder, then you’re dealing with both the random panic attacks and the consistent fear of another panic attack – which, in turn, can make you more sensitive to panic triggers.

Panic disorder can come and go. According to the ADAA, about 2-3% of Americans experience a bout of panic disorder in a given year, with women being more susceptible. Children may also be prone to panic disorder, although it can be harder to diagnose a child because they may not be able to completely articulate how they feel during a panic attack.

The good news is that panic disorders are treatable. As a form of anxiety, panic disorders are tackled through therapy, medication, and alternative treatments like meditation and yoga. While anxiety can be persistent, panic disorders are very responsive to treatment and usually go away once properly addressed. Anxiety as a symptom may linger, but the random panic attacks will go away.

The challenge isn’t getting effective treatment. For many, the challenge is getting treatment at all. Many people are reluctant to get a consultation for any mental symptoms, with panic attacks being one of them. Some might be embarrassed, and others might think it’s just temporary, despite occurring regularly. Please consider seeing a therapist just to confirm your symptoms. Otherwise, you may end up making something treatable even worse.

If your panic attacks are truly rare and random, then there are solutions that don’t involve seeing a professional. Consider cutting out substances that further aggravate anxiety, including anything with caffeine, excess amounts of sugar, and other stimulants. Be sure to get quality sleep and consider exercise or sports to get rid of excess energy before bedtime, to stave off sleeping problems. Several supplements aid in managing symptoms of anxiety, including Valerian root, chamomile, and kava. Aside from herbal supplements, making certain adjustments to your lifestyle – such as avoiding excess stress and taking more time for yourself – can also help stave off feelings of anxiety.

Treating Panic Attacks

There is no surefire way to treat anxiety, but several things are sure to help, including the aforementioned herbal supplements and lifestyle changes. By avoiding stimulants, getting enough sleep, staying physically active and avoiding excess stress, you can eliminate most of the factors that make anxiety worse.

But if you’re still finding yourself feeling anxious, the issue may be deeper. Anxiety disorders require psychotherapy to completely treat – this involves sitting down and confronting the thought processes that make your anxieties worse or give them life to begin with.

Panic attacks can be symptoms of a greater anxiety disorder, symptoms of a panic disorder, or just self-contained events that hint that you should probably hit the breaks and evaluate how you’re living your life. Sometimes, being sad is just being sad, and being scared is just being scared – and even when these thoughts take it to the extreme, the answer may lie in some self-reflection rather than talk therapy.

But don’t try to downplay what could certainly be a serious condition. Getting treatment early means getting better faster, and that’s important with mental health problems, which have a habit of getting worse if left unchecked.