Basic Facts About Panic Attacks

"I’m losing control....."

"I feel like I’m going crazy....."

"I must be having a heart attack....."

"I’m smothering and I can’t breathe....."

"It came upon me by surprise. I began to feel wave after wave of fear and my stomach gave out on me. I could hear my heart pounding so loudly I thought it would come out of my chest. Pains were shooting down my legs. I became so afraid I couldn’t catch my breath. What was happening to me? Was I having a heart attack? Was I dying?"

Panic attacks are very real, very awful, and emotionally debilitating. Many people who experience their first panic attack find themselves at hospital emergency rooms......or at doctors’ offices -- prepared to hear the very worst news possible about their health.

When they don’t hear that they’ve had a life-threatening condition (such as a heart attack), this news may actually increase their anxiety and frustration: "...if I am physically OK, what happened to me? I experienced something so dreadful I can’t even explain it. So what’s happening to me?"

If a person with panic goes undiagnosed, they can bounce around from doctor to doctor for years on end without experiencing any relief.  Instead, it becomes more and more frustrating to the panic sufferer as no one is able to pinpoint the problem and provide any kind of help.

Because the symptoms of panic are very real, the anxiety is so traumatizing, and the whole experience is new and strange, a panic attack is one of the worst experiences a person can have.

On top of the attack, there is always the nagging fear, "When will this happen to me again?"

Some people become so frightened of having additional panic attacks, especially in public, that they withdraw to their "safe zones", usually their homes, and very rarely leave them.  This condition is known as agoraphobia.  Note that the person with agoraphobia does not enjoy having their life so restricted; it is a depressing and miserable existence. It is the fear of having further panic attacks in public, where they do not feel safe, that keeps them bound close to home.

Over four million Americans suffer from panic attacks, according to the National Institutes of Mental Health. That number is about 5% of the adult American population. Many researchers feel that even this number is a low estimate, because many people who experience panic attacks never receive the proper diagnosis and "live" with it, despite its horror and its constant terror.

What is a panic attack?

A panic attack can only be described as a comprehensive emotional nightmare. Some people with panic feel like they are in an escalating cycle of catastrophe and doom and that something bad is going to happen to them "right now this very moment."

Others feel as if they are having a heart attack as their heart races. The heart palpitations convince them that they are about to have an attack. Other people feel that they are going to "lose control" of themselves and will do something embarrassing in front of other people. Others breathe so quickly, taking rapid short breaths and gasping for air, that they hyperventilate and feel like they will suffocate from lack of oxygen.

Common symptoms of panic include:

  • a racing or pounding heartbeat
  • dizziness and lightheadedness
  • feeling that "I can’t catch my breath"
  • chest pains or a "heaviness" in the chest
  • flushes or chills
  • tingling in the hands, feet, legs, arms
  • jumpiness, trembling, twitching muscles
  • sweaty palms, flushed face
  • terror
  • fear of losing control
  • fear of a stroke that will lead to disability
  • fear of dying
  • fear of going crazy

A panic attack typically lasts several long minutes and is one of the most distressing conditions a person can experience. In some cases, panic attacks have been known to last for longer periods of time or to recur very quickly over and over again.

The aftermath of a panic attack is very painful. Feelings of depression and helplessness are usually experienced. The greatest fear is that the panic attack will come back again and again, making life too miserable to bear.

Panic is not necessarily brought on by a recognizable circumstance, and it may remain a mystery to the person involved. These attacks come "out of the blue". At other times, excessive stress or other negative life conditions can trigger an attack.

Sadly, many people do not seek help for panic attacks, agoraphobia, and other anxiety-related difficulties. This is especially tragic because panic and other anxiety disorders are treatable conditions that respond well to relatively short-term therapy. The National Institutes of Mental Health is currently conducting a nationwide campaign to educate the general public and health care practitioners that panic and the other anxiety disorders are some of the most successfully treated psychological problems. Clinical research provides us with a solid blueprint of cognitive, emotional and behavioral methods that can help us overcome anxiety disorders, such as panic and/or agoraphobia.

Today, panic attacks and agoraphobia can be treated successfully with a motivated client and a knowledgeable therapist. 

Cognitive/behavioral therapy is a relatively new treatment for panic and agoraphobia that has been shown to be successful. Instead of using old-fashioned analysis-based techniques, therapists employing new CBT methods and focus on the present problem with panic -- and how to eliminate it.

Thus, CBT has legitimately been called "how to" therapy. That is, the focus is on "how to" eliminate the thoughts and feelings that lead to the vicious cycle of panic and anxiety.

People who experience panic and agoraphobia, are not "crazy" and do not need to be in therapy for extended periods of time. Sessions depend on the severity and length of the problem and the willingness of the client to actively participate in treatment and change.

When a person with panic is motivated to practice and try new techniques, that person is literally changing the way their brain responds. When you change the way your brain responds, anxiety and panic will continue to shrink, the strategies you use against it will become stronger, and panic will cease to cause you problems. 

Overcoming panic disorder means you no longer have panic attacks, and you no longer have the initial symptoms that lead you to have a panic attack.  The underlying symptoms must be gone as well before we say that someone has "overcome" panic disorder.  

Our History and Our Mission

The Anxiety Network began in 1995 due to growing demand from people around the world wanting help in understanding and overcoming their anxiety disorder.  The Anxiety and Stress Clinic and its website, The Anxiety Network, received so much traffic and requests for help that we found ourselves spending the majority of our time in international communication and outreach.  Our in-person anxiety clinic has grown tremendously, and our principal internet tool, The Anxiety Network, has been re-written and re-designed with focus on the major anxiety disorders.  

The Anxiety Network  focuses on three of the major anxiety disorders:  panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder,  and social anxiety disorder.

In 1997, The Social Anxiety Association, a non-profit organization, was formed and has its own website.

The Social Anxiety Institute, the largest site on the internet for information and treatment of social anxiety, has maintained an active website since 1998.  Continuous, ongoing therapy groups have helped hundreds of people overcome social anxiety since 1994.  Major changes in design will be occurring in 2014.

Follow Dr. Richards