Symptoms and Treatment for Panic Attacks

A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no apparent cause or immediate danger. Panic attacks can be extremely frightening, and you might think you’re losing control, having a heart attack or even dying.

Panic attacks may occur with or without a known trigger. According to the Mayo Clinic, many people have just one or two panic attacks in their lifetimes. But if your panic attacks are recurring and you are in constant fear of another attack, you may have a condition called panic disorder.

Although panic attacks themselves are not life-threatening, they can have a significant effect on your quality of life. In order to be diagnosed with a panic disorder, symptoms must not be related to substance use or another illness. If you have at least 4 (or more) of the following symptoms, you may have a panic disorder and should seek medical help.

Panic Disorder Signs and Symptoms

  • Palpitations, pounding heart or accelerated heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Feeling of shortness of breath or smothering
  • Feeling of choking
  • Chest pain
  • Nausea or abdominal distress
  • Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded or faint
  • Feeling detached from oneself (derealization)
  • Fear of losing control or going crazy
  • Fear of dying
  • Numbness or tingling sensations
  • ​Chills or hot flashes

Living with anxiety and panic attacks is more common than you may think. According to the latest mental illness statistics, 40 million American adults have a panic disorder.

In 2014, professional soccer player David Beckham went public with his own struggle with panic attacks and said that playing with Legos calms him down when he is feeling anxious. Other celebrities including Selena Gomez, Kendall Jenner, and Nicole Kidman, have admitted to suffering from anxiety and panic attacks.

Mental health research has shown that people who have been diagnosed with panic disorder can be effectively treated with medication, psychotherapy, or a combination of both.

Treatment for Panic Disorders

Medications for panic disorders typically fall into two categories: antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs.

When first introduced in the 1950s, antidepressants were primarily used to treat mood disorders. However, today, these medications are known to effectively help reduce anxiety, lessen the symptoms of panic, and decrease the intensity and frequency of panic attacks.

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Celexa, Paxil, Prozac, and Zoloft are frequently prescribed to treat panic disorders, anxiety, and panic attacks. This class of medication has been proven to decrease the frequency and intensity of panic attacks and can make a huge difference for a person who has become afraid of leaving the home or has difficulty engaging in other necessary activities.

Expert psychologists recommend that anyone who is struggling with an anxiety disorder try cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) as the first-line of treatment. One of the main goals of CBT is to develop coping skills by changing negative thinking patterns and unhealthy behaviors found in persons diagnosed with panic disorder.

Another popular treatment for panic disorder is panic-focused psychodynamic psychotherapy (PFPP). This form of therapy aims to uncover past experiences and emotional issues that may have influenced the person’s development of panic and anxiety. Psychotherapists believe that by coming to terms with emotional turmoil, the client can then overcome their issues with panic disorder.