What is Panic Attack (Symptoms & Causes)

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what is panic attack

In the last few years, societal awareness about the importance of mental health has been steadily growing.

What was once a taboo topic has become an important cause to fight for and destigmatize—and rightfully so.

One of the issues that have received much-needed attention is panic attacks. 

So, what is a panic attack? While some people may experience once in exceptional circumstances, it is a common struggle for many.

Therefore, it is vital to understand panic attacks and how they can affect a person’s life.

This article will go over what a panic attack is and the most common panic attack symptoms.

Additionally, we will go over what causes panic attacks and how one might deal with them.

Finally, we will discuss how online therapy can help people suffering from panic attacks and allow them to lead a normal life.

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What Is a Panic Attack and What Symptoms Does It Have?

A panic attack, sometimes also called an anxiety attack, is a sudden episode of intense anxiety and fear in situations that wouldn’t usually prompt such a response.

During a panic attack, the body experiences many physical symptoms, such as a racing heart, sweating, and rapid breathing. These could happen due to a number of factors.

One way to think of panic attacks is in terms of the body’s natural ‘fight-or-flight’ response.

The body encounters different chemicals that prepare it for imminent danger during this stage.

However, you know you’re having a panic attack when such a response is triggered in a situation that doesn’t warrant it—like sleeping, watching TV, or other mundane activities. 

Not everybody who experiences panic attacks has them at the same frequency. Some people may experience weekly attacks, while others may have episodes that are months apart. 

How long a panic attack lasts also varies among people. Most episodes last for around 5-20 minutes, but some can even last for an hour. 

1. Panic Disorder

People who frequently experience panic attacks are likely to be diagnosed with a panic disorder.

This is a type of anxiety disorder where the person has regular and intense panic attacks and has ongoing worries of having another attack at any moment.

These individuals may change their daily routines and avoid certain situations or places where they fear they could trigger another attack.

Panic attacks are more common than one might think. An estimated 1 in 10 Americans has at least one episode per year.

Around 2-3% of those individuals may develop a panic disorder. However, this depends on many demographic factors, like age and gender.

2. Physical symptoms

During an episode, the person has multiple physical and psychological panic attack symptoms.

Some of these are more obvious than others, and the individual will experience them to differing degrees.  

Here are some of the common symptoms that allude to a panic attack episode:

  1. Rapid, pounding heart rate;
  2. Sweating;
  3. Trembling, shaking; 
  4. Shortness of breath or tightness in your throat, choking sensation; 
  5. Chest pain; 
  6. Nausea; 
  7. Abdominal cramping and churning; 
  8. Headache; 
  9. Dizziness, lightheadedness or faintness, ringing in the ears; 
  10. Numbness or tingling sensation; 
  11. Hot flushes; 
  12. Dry mouth. 

Not all symptoms must be present for the experience to be considered a panic attack. Additionally, this is not an exhaustive list.

However, these are some of the most common physical symptoms during a panic attack.

3. Psychological symptoms

Along with physical symptoms, panic attacks also trigger psychological symptoms.

These may not be obvious to an outside observer but are very real to the person experiencing the episode.

Here are some of the most common physiological symptoms during a panic attack: 

  • A strong feeling of dread, danger, or foreboding – This is one of the defining traits of this disorder.
    People during a panic attack experience an overwhelming sense of imminent danger and dread;
  • Anxious and irrational thinking – Panic attacks often induce intense anxiety.
    That often clouds the judgment of the individual, causing them to think and act irrationally during the episode; 
  • Fear of going mad, losing control, or dying – The entire collection of symptoms makes the person feel they’ve lost control over their mind and body.
    Additionally, the shortness of breath, chest pains, and other physical panic attack symptoms may make the person feel like they are dying;
  • Feelings of unreality and detachment from the environment – Finally, during the episode, the individual may feel like they have detached from their body and the environment in general.
    The overwhelming symptoms cause a sense of detached reality.

How Dangerous are Panic Attacks: Complications

Panic attack episodes can occur suddenly without any warning.

The person experiences a rush of bodily changes during the episode and after it—both physical and mental.

And while this is a distressing and frightening experience, are panic attacks dangerous?

Well, not necessarily. Panic attacks do not cause any physical harm. 

However, experts still advise seeking professional help if you suffer from these episodes.

That is because panic attacks can lead to other complications, which could cause further problems. 

People suffering from untreated panic attacks are significantly more likely to develop other mental health issues, like phobias, anxiety, and depression.

Additionally, these people may develop drug and alcohol problems dealing with their situation.

So even though panic attacks may not be inherently dangerous, if you suspect or know that you experience frequent panic attacks, you should see a medical professional as soon as possible.

The doctor can then deal with your symptoms and alleviate the adverse effect. 

What Causes Panic Attacks and How to Deal With Them?

Like many other psychological disorders, the definitive cause of panic attacks is not fully defined.

Nevertheless, scientists have extensively researched the topic.

It is well-known that the brain and nervous system are of great importance, as they play a vital role in how a person perceives and handles fear and anxiety. 

Several things are linked with panic attacks and panic disorder. As mentioned above, age and gender play an essential part.

Symptoms often start developing in late teens and early childhood but can appear at any age.

Additionally, women are more likely to experience panic attacks compared to men.


Biological, social, and environmental factors can all influence whether a person develops a panic disorder.

There are several explanations when it comes to the cause of panic attacks. 

Here are the most common reasons why a person might have a panic attack episode:

  1. Genetics – panic attacks and panic disorders have a strong genetic component.
    That means that these types of conditions are often inherited or passed down in the family; 
  2. Prolonged and major stress – Many people live their life in a persistent state of anxiety.
    That could be in a stressful job or living environment and can lead to such individuals experiencing panic attacks;
  3. Substance abuse – People who have problems with excessive drinking and drug use are more likely to have panic attacks.
  4. That includes the abuse of prescription drugs and marijuana. Even smoking cigarettes is linked to panic attacks.

Risk Factors

In addition to the cause of this disorder, some known risk factors increase the likelihood of developing panic attacks or panic disorder in the future. 

Here are some of the abovementioned risk factors: 

  1. Family history of mental health issues – As mentioned before, anxiety and phobias have a genetic component.
    Therefore, the presence of similar mental health issues is a strong indicator that you are likely to develop panic attacks as well;
  2. Prior mental health issues – persons diagnosed with other mental health disorders are more likely to experience panic attacks.
    These include OCD, PTSD, anxietydepression, and others;
  3. A traumatic event – such as sexual assault or a severe accident, the death or life-threatening illness of a loved one;
  4. Major changes in your life – Things like divorce or the addition of a baby in a family may be another source of stress, especially if they weren’t planned or foreseen. 

How to Stop Panic Attacks

If you don’t know how to stop panic attacks, don’t fret.

If you experience any of the above-listed symptoms, the first thing you should do is to contact a doctor or medical expert.

They will be able to evaluate your situation and prescribe a suitable treatment or refer you to an appropriate specialist.

They can also perform various tests and examinations to rule out the presence of any other medical issue that you might not know about. 

Once you are diagnosed with a panic disorder, you can treat the condition several ways.

The most sustainable and helpful remedy is some form of therapy that will help you understand the underlying reasons why you are experiencing the attacks, and how to deal with them.

Another form of treatment is medications. Usually, people suffering from panic attacks have to take an anti-anxiety medicine, anti-epilepsy medicine, or antidepressants. Such remedies mainly aid the patient alongside therapy.

Whatever your doctor advises, you must follow their advice. Do not stop any medication they prescribe to you, and consult your doctor if you are unsure about anything.

However, there are also things that you can do during an episode that will help.

Try to focus on positive, peaceful images, or try and distract yourself by paying attention to something external.

If possible, remain where you are and focus on breathing slowly and deeply. 

Finally, remind yourself that the panic attack is not life-threatening and it will pass.

Remember that the symptoms you are experiencing are temporary, even if they are uncomfortable. 

And most importantly, do not try to force yourself to stop the symptoms by telling yourself to stop panicking and relax. That will only make things worse.

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How Online Therapy Can Help You Overcome Panic Attacks

As mentioned before, therapy is by far the best option for dealing with panic attacks.

Since panic attacks are not life-threatening, people are rarely hospitalized due to this disorder.

Instead, there is an emphasis on helping the person better deal with their feelings during the episode and preventing further episodes by addressing underlying issues. 

Therapy comes in a few different types. Most people are familiar with in-person therapy sessions.

That is where a therapist sits down with one or a few patients and talks them through their issues. 

This procedure usually requires commuting to the therapist’s office, which many people avoid due to the high transportation costs.

Plus, not many feel comfortable sitting opposite of a therapist and discussing their troubles.

However, lately, there has been a rise in the popularity of online therapy services.

Here, sessions are mainly conducted the same way as in-person, but over the internet. That could be via chat, calls, or video conferences. 

Regardless of what form they take, online therapies offer multiple benefits to people suffering from panic attacks.

They are generally cheaper than in-office counseling, more anonymous, and you can conduct them from the comfort of your home.

The following section will discuss a couple of different types of online therapy available and see how they compare to in-person sessions. 

Types of Online Therapy

The most well-known type of therapy is psychotherapy or talk therapy.

That is the classic form of treatment where a professional and a patient sit down and discuss what is troubling the patient. 

During psychotherapy, the mental health professional will help the patient analyze their past experiences and identify underlying negative emotions and behaviors.

This type of therapy is ideal for helping you better understand what you are going through—for example, why certain situations and locations trigger a panic attack. 

Another popular type of therapy is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or CBT.

CBT is another type of talking therapy, but the emphasis is on changing your behavior to overcome negative emotions.

That supports the idea that negative emotions, feelings, and actions are all interconnected in a feedback loop. The whole point is to break this cycle.

During CBT, your therapist will help you identify negative patterns of thinking and behaving that reinforce themselves.

Then they will help you break them down into manageable parts and help you overcome them with a practical action play.

A distinguishing feature of CBT is that it deals with current problems instead of focusing on past issues. 

CBT is a lot more structured approach; you can complete it faster than other types of therapy.

However, to get the most out of CBT, the patient must commit fully to the action plan and carry out the extra work assigned between sessions.

In-Person vs. Online Therapy

So, how does online therapy compare to in-person therapy? Essentially, you can expect to get the same good treatment.

Therapists are trained professionals who help people with different mental health issues. That isn’t any different when it comes to online therapists. 

One obvious thing that sets online therapy apart is where the session takes place. Instead of at an office, online treatment works over the internet or the phone.

That means that people can access these sessions from their own houses. That is an immense benefit to many patients and can help alleviate a significant source of anxiety when seeking professional help.

Another difference is how the therapist conducts the session. In-person therapy relies on face-to-face talking. 

On the other hand, online therapy can take place in many different ways. You can communicate via video conference, text, email, or phone—to name a few. 

Additionally, online therapists are a lot more accessible in terms of when you can contact them. In-person therapy usually occurs once or twice a week. 

However, patients can sometimes contact online therapists 24/7—primarily via text. That is ideal if you need urgent help or are in a crisis and cannot wait for a predetermined appointment. 

However, online therapy still has its flaws. For example, these services still incur costs that not everybody can cover.

Also, some individuals may experience more stress and anxiety trying to use online therapy and would prefer to talk in person. 

Either way, any form of therapy is vital in dealing with panic attacks and disorders. You should not overlook professional help when dealing with these issues. 

The Beginning of a Less Stressful Future

Everyone has their own struggle that they are fighting. And it often seems like others just wouldn’t understand what you’re going through.

But it’s important to know that you are not alone, and there are people that can understand and help your situation.

Panic attacks are often non-obvious on the outside. However, this doesn’t make them any less real. They are a valid concern that is worth addressing. 

If you or someone you know might be suffering from panic attacks, do not hesitate to seek professional help. That is the best course of action to help in this situation.

We’ve entered a new era where it is no longer a stigma to hide away your struggles and cope alone.

More individuals are asking for help and getting the proper treatment, which eventually eliminates panic attacks. After all, your mental health deserves only the best. 

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