People with panic attack disorder have sudden and repeated attacks of fear that last for several minutes. Sometimes attack symptoms may last longer. These are called panic attacks. Panic attack is characterized by a fear of disaster or of losing control even when there is no real danger. A person may also have a strong physical reaction during a panic attack. It may feel like having a heart attack. Panic attack disorder can occur at any time, and many people with panic disorder worry about and dread the possibility of having another attack.
A person with panic attack disorder may become discouraged and feel ashamed because he or she cannot carry out normal routines like going to the grocery store or driving. Having panic disorder can also interfere with school or work.
Panic attack disorder sometimes runs in families, but no one knows for sure why some people have it while others don’t. Researchers have found that several parts of the brain are involved in fear and anxiety. By learning more about fear and anxiety in the brain, scientists may be able to create better treatments. Researchers are also looking for ways in which stress and environmental factors may play a role.
A panic attack is defined as the abrupt onset of intense fear that reaches a peak within a few minutes and includes at least four of the following symptoms:
- a feeling of imminent danger or doom
- the need to escape
- heart palpitations
- shortness of breath or a smothering feeling
- a feeling of choking
- chest pain or discomfort
- nausea or abdominal discomfort
- dizziness or lightheadedness
- a sense of things being unreal, depersonalization
- a fear of losing control or going crazy
- a fear of dying
- tingling sensation
- chills or heat flush
Since many of the symptoms of panic attack disorder mimic those of illnesses such as heart disease, thyroid problems, and breathing disorders, people with panic disorder often make many visits to emergency rooms or doctor’s offices, convinced they have a life-threatening illness. It often takes months or years and a great deal of frustration before receiving the correct diagnosis.
Many people suffering from panic attacks don’t know they have a real and treatable disorder.