Out of the blue, you’re struck with intense fear, light-headedness, palpitations and a sense of being out of your own body. And then it passes, as suddenly as it came. What just happened? You might have had a panic attack.
A panic attack can come on suddenly, for no apparent reason, and can come and go during a normal activity. Sometimes a recurring situation—such as entering a tunnel—can trigger one. Unusual stress, such as work overload or a serious accident, can trigger a first-time panic attack. Certain medications or too much caffeine can set you up for one, too. Women and those with a family history of panic attacks are more likely to experience one.
Panic attacks usually peak within 10 to 15 minutes and rarely last more than half an hour. Afterward, many people feel worn out or head to the emergency room, assuming they’re having a heart attack.
The good news is that panic attacks are treatable. If you experience symptoms, consult your doctor. (See “Recognizing a Panic Attack.”) He or she will perform a complete medical examination to rule out other possible causes of your symptoms. If your doctor determines that you do suffer from panic attacks, he or she will most likely suggest the following treatments:
- Therapy. A combination of cognitive and behavioral therapy is most effective. Normally, you meet with a therapist for one to three hours a week for approximately six to eight weeks. After this time, your therapist will assess your progress. Many people find that relaxation techniques, recreational time and local support groups help as well.
- Medication. Your doctor may prescribe an antidepressant or anti-anxiety drug. The right medication helps you use the strategies you learn in therapy to head off the earliest thoughts and feelings of panic so you can ward off future full-blown panic attacks.
Once you’ve been diagnosed with panic attacks, it’s important that you follow your treatment plan. Otherwise, your panic attacks may develop into a repetitive pattern called panic disorder.
Don’t let a fear of more panic attacks cause you to avoid otherwise normal situations. Get the help you need to manage your anxiety and reclaim your life.
If you experience at least four of the following, you may be having a panic attack:a feeling of terror or dooma need to escapepalpitationsa racing or pounding heartbeatchest discomfortshortness of breathdizziness or light-headednessa sensation of chokingnausea tingling in the handssweating tremblinghot flashes or chillsa fear of losing controla sense of unreality a fear of dying
Some of these symptoms, such as chest discomfort and shortness of breath, may also indicate a heart attack. When in doubt, seek emergency care.