Panic Attacks: Types, Causes & Symptoms

panic attack

What Are Panic Attacks?

Panic attacks are sudden, intense surges of anxiety, fear, or panic. It is an overwhelming feeling that has both physical and emotional symptoms. People who experience panic attacks may sweat profusely, have difficulty breathing, tremble, and most often feel their hearts pounding. Although panic attacks are not life-threatening, they can be frightening and cause loss of control, a heart attack, or death.

Types of Panic Attacks

There are two types of panic attacks; the expected panic attacks and the unexpected ones.

Expected Panic Attacks

This type of panic attack is anticipated when a person suffers panic triggers or specific signals. For example, a claustrophobic person may expect to have a panic attack when they are in cramped areas such as an elevator. Another example is someone who has the fear of flying, commonly called aerophobia. Such a person may have a panic attack when boarding a plane, during the flight, or at the point of take-off.

Unexpected Panic Attacks

Unlike the expected panic attacks, unexpected panic attacks occur suddenly without any obvious signals or cause. It occurs when a person can be relaxed before the symptoms would develop. Unexpected panic attacks don`t come with any conscious signals such as feelings of dread and anxiety, fear, or an uncomfortable physical sensation. It also does not occur with external signals such as being exposed to a frightening situation.

Causes of Panic Attacks

The causes of panic attacks are unknown, however, here are some factors that contribute to it:

  • genetics
  • extreme stress
  • changes in the way a part of the brain functions
  • temperament that is more sensitive to negative emotions

Risk Factors of Panic Attacks

  • family history of a panic attack or panic disorder
  • excess caffeine intake and smoking
  • extreme life stress, such as serious illness or death of a loved one
  • traumatic events such as a ghastly accident or sexual assault
  • experiencing major changes in life such as having a baby, or getting a divorce
  • history of childhood or sexual abuse

Symptoms of Panic Attacks

Some symptoms of panic attacks or disorder usually occur in the late teen or early
adulthood and they affect more women than men. Panic attacks can begin suddenly without any warning. Some people may have occasional panic attacks and for some, they may occur frequently. Here are some possible signs or symptoms of panic attacks

  • sweating
  • trembling or shaking
  • chest pain
  • chills
  • sense of impending doom or danger
  • fear of loss
  • hot flashes
  • nausea
  • rapid pounding heart rate
  • short of breath
  • tightness in the throat
  • headache
  • abnormal cramping
  • numbness or tingling sensation
  • dizziness. Lightheadedness or faintness

How to Diagnose Panic Attacks

medical testYour doctor can determine if you have panic attacks, panic disorders, or other conditions such as heart or thyroid problems with symptoms that are associated with panic attacks with the following methods:

  • a complete physical examination
  • conducting blood tests to help check one’s thyroid and other possible conditions
    and tests on the heart
  • a psychological examination or evaluation of the fears, symptoms, family
    history, stressful situations, among others

How to Treat Panic Attacks

Treatment can help reduce the intensity and frequency of panic attacks and also improve your functions in daily life. There are two main options for treatment which are medications and psychotherapy. These two types can be recommended depending on the panic attacks.

Medications for Panic Attack

This can help reduce the symptoms associated with panic attacks. Here are some of the medications that have been proven effective in managing the symptoms of a panic attack:


Benzodiazepine sedatives are central nervous system depressants. They have been approved by the FDA for the treatment of panic disorders. These medications are not a good choice if one has problems with drug or alcohol use. It can also interact with other drugs which can lead to dangerous side effects.

Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs)

They are antidepressants that are usually recommended as the first choice of medications to treat panic attacks due to the low risk of their side effects. Some approved SSRIs for the treatment of panic attacks include; sertraline (Zoloft), fluoxetine (Prozac), and paroxetine (Paxil, Pexeva).

Serotonin and Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors (SNRIs)

This is another class of antidepressant medications that have been approved by the FDA for the treatment of panic attacks or panic disorders.


This is also known as “talk therapy”. It is an effective first choice in treating panic attacks and disorders. This therapy helps one understand panic attacks or disorders and learning how to cope with them. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, a form of psychotherapy, can help the patient learn through their own experience. Positive results from this treatment can take time and requires effort. Symptoms may reduce within several weeks and can go away completely within months. Successful treatment can help one overcome fears of situations that one has most likely avoided due to panic attacks.

Home Remedies for Panic Attacks

  • Avoid caffeine, smoking, alcohol, and recreational drugs, because they can trigger or worsen the attacks
  • Joining a support group with people who also have these panic attacks or disorders can help you connect and manage your symptoms
  • Stick to your treatment plan
  • Get enough sleep to help keep you active and less drowsy during the day
  • Practice stress management and relaxation techniques like yoga and deep breathing
  • Progressive muscle relaxation can help ease tension and manage attacks
  • Get physically active by engaging in aerobic activities to help lighten you and keep you in a calm mood

Complications of Panic Disorders

sadIf panic attacks and disorders are left untreated or not managed. they can lead to
some complications such as:

  • Problems at work or school
  • Financial problems
  • Anxiety disorder, depression, and other psychiatric disorders
  • Development of phobias such as fear of driving or leaving home
  • Avoiding social activities
  • Alcohol or another harmful substance misuse
  • Increased risk of suicide or suicidal thoughts

How to Stop Panic Attacks

Here are some strategies one can use to try to stop a panic attack when it occurs or
when you feel one coming.

Deep Breathing

Controlling your breathing can help you reduce the symptoms of hyperventilating during panic attacks.

Recognize that you`re Having a Panic Attack

It is important to recognize that it is a panic attack you are having and not a heart attack; it will help take away the fear and remind you that it`s only temporary and will pass.

Close your Eyes

When you keep your eyes closed during a panic attack, it will help block out triggers that overwhelm you.

Find a Focus Object

Pick an object in sight and consciously note everything about it; this will help distract you.

Use Muscle Relaxation Techniques

Consciously relax your muscles at a time; you can start with your fingers and move way up through your body.

Now that you Know…

Panic attacks are caused by sudden episodes of intense fear that trigger severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or cause. Many people experience panic attacks just once or twice in their lifetime, and the problem goes away when the stressful or serious situation ends, however, if these panic attacks become recurrent and last for a long time, one may have a condition called panic disorder. It`s not life-threatening, but one has to take preventive steps that will help in managing the situation.