Panic Attack

A panic attack is a strong feeling of fear or discomfort. The attack starts suddenly, is worst 10 minutes after it starts, and stops within 20 minutes. An attack may be triggered by something you do, such as public speaking. Exposure to something you are afraid of can also trigger an attack. A panic attack can also happen for no clear reason. Frequent panic attacks may be a sign of a panic disorder that needs long-term treatment.

What are the signs and symptoms of a panic attack?

  • Chest pain
  • Sweating or trembling
  • Fast or irregular heartbeats
  • Hyperventilation (breathing so quickly you become dizzy, lightheaded, or faint)
  • Shortness of breath, trouble breathing, or a feeling that you are choking or smothering
  • Lightheadedness or fainting
  • Pale or cold skin, chills, or hot flashes
  • Nausea, vomiting, or abdominal pain

A feeling that you are separate from your body

How is a panic attack diagnosed and treated?

Your healthcare provider will ask what triggered the attack. Tell him or her if fear of another panic attack limits your daily activities. Also tell your provider about any medications you currently take. Tests may be done to check for medical conditions that may be causing your symptoms. If you had only 1 panic attack, you may not need treatment. Treatment for more than one attack may include any of the following:

  • Medicines may be given to make you feel more relaxed or to reduce anxiety that causes a panic attack. Some medicines are taken only when you are having a panic attack. Other medicines can be taken to prevent panic attacks.
  • A behavior therapist can help you learn to control how your body responds to stressful situations. He or she may also teach you ways to relax your muscles and slow your breathing during a panic attack.
  • Exposure therapy is used to help you change your reaction to triggers. You are exposed to your panic attack triggers in small amounts. The amount of exposure is slowly increased until it no longer triggers a panic attack.

What can I do to manage or prevent a panic attack?

  • Manage stress. Stress can trigger a panic attack. Ways to lower your stress level include yoga, meditation, and talking to someone about the stress in your life.

Exercise as directed. Exercise can reduce stress and help you sleep better. Try to get at least 30 minutes of physical activity on most days of the week. Your healthcare provider can help you create an exercise plan.

  • Set a sleep schedule. Too little sleep can increase anxiety. Go to bed at the same time each night and wake up at the same time each morning. Keep your room quiet and free from distractions, such as a television or computer.

Eat a variety of healthy foods. Healthy foods include fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy products, lean meats, fish, and beans. Limit sugar. Sugar can increase your symptoms.