What Are Panic Attacks?

A woman looks up with her eyes closed and tears coming down her face

PeopleImages / Getty Images

Panic attacks are brief episodes of sudden, intense fear that pop up without warning or an obvious trigger. The level of fear you feel is out of proportion or unrelated to the situation. During a panic attack, you can also experience a wide range of uncomfortable physical symptoms like chest pain, sweating, and chills.

Fortunately, there are some self-calming tactics to help get yourself through a panic attack, as well as medical treatment options available if needed.

Signs and Symptoms of Panic Attacks

A panic attack is much more intense than a normal stressed-out feeling people may experience in response to a mildly uncomfortable situation.

Panic attacks involve a combination of emotional, mental, and physical symptoms that can lead to a person feeling severely embarrassed, fearful of losing control, or desperately wanting to escape the situation.

Experts use a set of specific criteria to diagnose a panic attack, which involves the typical sudden feelings of fear, anxiety, or dread along with at least four of the following symptoms:

  • Chest pain
  • Heart palpitations or rapid heart rate
  • Sweating, hot flashes, or chills
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Nausea or stomach pain
  • Feeling like you're going to choke
  • Feelings of being disconnected from reality or being detached from yourself
  • Fear of dying
  • Fear of losing control or "going crazy"
  • Numbness or tingling sensations
  • Shortness of breath
  • Shaking or trembling

Editor's Note: Sometimes panic attacks can be mistaken for having a heart attack or stroke because of symptoms like heart palpitations and shortness of breath. Thinking you're having a medical emergency like a heart attack can actually add to the extreme fear you feel during a panic attack.

What Triggers a Panic Attack?

Most times, panic attacks happen unexpectedly without a clear reason. Panic attacks might even happen when you are relaxed or asleep.

Sometimes, certain situations can trigger a panic attack. Being exposed to the trigger or anticipating exposure to the trigger and having a panic attack in response is known as a situational-induced panic attack.

There is a wide range of factors can trigger a panic attack. Some typical scenarios that may prompt an expected panic attack include situations that can be stressful or intense (but not necessarily dangerous), such as:

  • Working
  • Driving or flying
  • Going to stores or restaurants
  • Riding on an elevator
  • Using public transportation
  • Exercising
  • Drinking coffee
  • A traumatic event, like a car accident

Regardless of whether there was a trigger, panic attacks can lead to what's known as agoraphobia. Agoraphobia is the fear of places or situations or places where escape is difficult. If you've already had a panic attack, you might then fear situations that can lead to other panic attacks and start to anxiously avoid such situations.

Panic Attacks vs. Panic Disorder

Panic attacks and panic disorder are not the same thing. While a panic attack describes an incident where you experience a sudden surge of overwhelming fear or discomfort, panic disorder is a condition that's characterized by frequent, unexpected panic attacks that happen over and over.

If you think you might be living with panic disorder, it's important to get an accurate diagnosis from a healthcare provider. This office visit could involve:

  • A physical exam to better understand any physical symptoms you may be experiencing
  • Questions about your symptoms, medical history, behavior patterns, mood, and emotions
  • A blood test to rule out a heart or other physical condition, as panic attack symptoms like palpitations can mimic cardiovascular issues

To officially diagnose panic disorder, you may also be referred to another provider who specializes in mental health conditions. They'll use criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (or DSM-5), which is a set of mental health condition guidelines from the American Psychiatric Association. The provider will assess for specific markers, such as:

  • Panic attacks that happen frequently and sometimes unexpectedly
  • An ongoing worry that you'll have another panic attack
  • A fear that you'll lose control during the attack
  • Lack of another possible cause of the panic attacks (like drug use or another health condition)

Editor's Note: Panic attacks are common. Researchers estimate that somewhere around 11% to 13% of adults have experienced a panic attack. It's less common to meet the diagnostic criteria for panic disorder, a condition that's thought to affect roughly 2% to 3% of adults per year.

How To Calm Yourself During an Attack

Calming yourself during a panic attack is easier said than done, but it is possible with relaxation techniques centered around breathing and visualization.

Breathing retraining can help slow your breathing rate. Practice this by inhaling, holding, exhaling, and repeating. This type of breathing can send your body signals of calm.

Positive visualization can help foster peace or calm and reduce feelings of nervousness or anxiety—lowering your fight-or-flight response to stress.

You can also consider looking into other calming self-help strategies, such as sensitization (carefully exposing yourself to a fearful situation to help get past the extreme fear) or progressive muscle relaxation (a body tension-reducing technique that helps counteract the normal fight-or-flight response).

It might also be helpful to remind yourself that there is an end in sight. Most panic attacks last no more than 10 to 20 minutes, which is how long the body can keep up the fight-or-flight response.

How To Prevent a Future Attack

Panic attacks aren't always predictable, but you can take steps to sometimes prevent them. For example, you could:

  • Learn your triggers and learn how to cope with them
  • Engage in regular physical activity to help reduce stress and relax the mind
  • Get enough sleep so you're not groggy and potentially anxiety-prone
  • Be mindful when consuming caffeine, alcohol, tobacco, or recreational drugs to avoid triggering an attack

Also keep in mind that there are treatment options available to help cut down on how often you're getting panic attacks—and how severe they are. Your healthcare provider might suggest a treatment plan involving medication, psychotherapy, or a combination of the two. Possible treatments include:

  • Antidepressants—usually selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRI), or tricyclics—to help regulate your emotional response
  • Benzodiazepines for immediate help calming during an attack
  • Talk therapy to help manage stress, rearrange thinking patterns, and cope with panic attacks

A Quick Review

Panic attacks are brief episodes of sudden, intense, almost-paralyzing fear around a situation that doesn't actually present a high level of danger. The attacks can come with a broad range of physical symptoms like heart palpitations, sweating, and feeling faint. Panic attacks can happen in response to a trigger or, more commonly, they can pop up out of the blue. If you are experiencing a panic attack, you can try to use calming tactics and relaxation techniques to ease your fear. A healthcare provider may recommend medication or talk therapy to help ease the frequency and severity of attacks.

Was this page helpful?
21 Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Psychological Association. Panic disorder: answers to your most important questions.

  2. MedlinePlus. Panic disorder.

  3. Lundin L. Online narratives about panic attacks: interpreted within a psychodynamic framework.Social Work in Mental Health. 2020;18(3):349-365. doi:10.1080/15332985.2020.1744500.

  4. de Jong P, Roest AM, Lim C, Levinson D, Scott K. Panic disorder and panic attacks. Mental disorders around the world: Facts and Figures from the WHO World Mental Health Surveys. 2018:93-105. doi:10.1017/9781316336168.007.

  5. Locke AB, Kirst N, Shultz CG. Diagnosis and management of generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder in adults. afp. 2015;91(9):617-624.

  6. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed, 2013. 

  7. American Academy of Family Physicians. Panic disorder.

  8. Bonevski D, Naumovska A. Panic attacks and panic disorder. IntechOpen. 2019. doi:10.5772/intechopen.86898

  9. MedlinePlus. Panic disorder test.

  10. National Institute of Mental Health. Panic disorder: When fear overwhelms.

  11. Johnson PL, Federici LM, Shekhar A. Etiology, triggers and neurochemical circuits associated with unexpected, expected, and laboratory-induced panic attacks. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2014 Oct;46 Pt 3:429-54. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2014.07.027

  12. MedlinePlus. Agoraphobia.

  13. Bonevski D, Naumovska A. Panic attacks and panic disorder. IntechOpen. 2019. doi:10.5772/intechopen.86898.

  14. Manjunatha N, Ram D. Panic disorder in general medical practice- A narrative review. J Family Med Prim Care. 2022 Mar;11(3):861-869. doi:10.4103/jfmpc.jfmpc_888_21

  15. de Jonge P, Roest AM, Lim CC, et al. Cross-national epidemiology of panic disorder and panic attacks in the world mental health surveys. Depress Anxiety. 2016;33(12):1155-1177. doi:10.1002/da.22572

  16. VA Center for Integrated Healthcare. Panic attacks.

  17. Nguyen J, Brymer E. Nature-based guided imagery as an intervention for state anxietyFront Psychol. 2018;9:1858. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01858

  18. Kozlowska K, Walker P, McLean L, Carrive P. Fear and the defense cascade: Clinical implications and managementHarv Rev Psychiatry. 2015;23(4):263-287. doi:10.1097/HRP.0000000000000065

  19. Chen KW, Berger CC, Manheimer E, et al. Meditative therapies for reducing anxiety: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trialsDepress Anxiety. 2012;29(7):545-62. doi:10.1002/da.21964

  20. Hayes-skelton SA, Roemer L, Orsillo SM, Borkovec TD. A contemporary view of applied relaxation for generalized anxiety disorderCogn Behav Ther. 2013;42(4):292-302. doi:10.1080/16506073.2013.777106

  21. Manjunatha N, Ram D. Panic disorder in general medical practice- A narrative review. J Family Med Prim Care. 2022 Mar;11(3):861-869. doi: 10.4103/jfmpc.jfmpc_888_21

Related Articles