It’s normal to feel overwhelmed or anxious at times, but if your feelings of panic are sudden and intense enough to disrupt your day-to-day life on a regular basis, you may be experiencing panic attacks.
What is a panic attack?
A panic attack is a brief, intense period of experiencing overwhelming fear or anxiety. Panic attacks often occur suddenly and can even happen at times when you’ve been feeling calm otherwise. Panic attacks tend to include both psychological symptoms and physiological ones, such as shortness of breath.
Panic attacks are sometimes a symptom of a broader mental health condition called panic disorder. However, they can also occur on their own or as part of a different mental health condition, such as agoraphobia, postpartum anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Prevalence of panic attacks
Because panic attacks are generally considered to be part of other mental health conditions, it’s difficult to know exactly how common they are. However, panic disorder, which is a pattern of frequent panic attacks, is known to be relatively common in the United States. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that about 2–3% of adults in the United States experienced panic disorder in a given year.
Additionally, panic disorder is about twice as common for women as for men.
Symptoms of panic attacks
Panic attacks may be different for different people, but they generally include some psychological symptoms and some physiological ones. The most common symptoms include:
- Intense fear of death or a feeling of danger, even when there is no immediate threat
- Sensation of losing control of thoughts or emotions
- Feeling detached from yourself or from reality
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain or pounding heart
- Shaking, numbness, or tingling sensations
- Chills, hot flashes, and/or sweating
Usually, panic attacks intensify quickly and then symptoms begin to go away within about ten minutes.
Types of panic attacks
Panic attacks all share similar symptoms, but they can occur as part of a number of different broader mental health conditions. These conditions include:
- Panic disorder: People with panic disorder experience panic attacks on a regular basis and usually also experience significant worry about when the next attack will occur.
- Agoraphobia: If you have agoraphobia, you may experience panic attacks in public settings.
- Other phobias: A specific phobia can cause panic attacks in reaction to the thing or situation that triggers intense fear.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): Panic attacks are a common symptom of PTSD.
- Substance use: For some people, use of alcohol or other substances can lead to panic attacks.
- Postpartum panic attacks: Some women experience panic attacks related to pregnancy, or postpartum, concerns.
- Anxiety or depression: Anxiety or depression disorders of various kinds can also be connected to panic attacks in some cases.
For some people, panic attacks might also occur on their own, especially in response to a specific stressful situation.
What to do if you’re experiencing panic attacks
If you’re experiencing panic attacks, there are a number of options that you may find helpful.
- Therapy: Working with a therapist can help you gain insight into the circumstances that trigger your panic attacks and give you strategies for managing your symptoms. (See below for tips on finding a therapist.)
- Medication: In some cases, medication can be a helpful way to manage panic attacks. Though most medications come with side effects, a psychiatric professional can help you manage these side effects and find the most effective treatment.
- Check-ups: Because symptoms of panic attacks can be linked to underlying medical conditions, it’s important to talk to your doctor to rule out medical conditions that may be related.
- Exercise: Studies show that aerobic activity can prevent panic disorders from recurring.
- Hotlines: If you’re having thoughts of suicide or need immediate support, you can always call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at at 1-800-273-8255. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration hotline at 1-800-622-4357 can also help you locate resources and treatment options.
How to find a therapist for panic attacks
Determine which therapy type(s) appeals to you
For example, Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is often considered to be the most helpful kind of psychotherapy for panic attacks. Some other kinds of psychotherapy you might consider include:
- Exposure therapy (particularly if your panic attacks are related to a phobia)
- Mindfulness practices
- Holistic therapy
Prioritize personal fit
As with any therapy, it’s important to make sure that your therapist is a good fit for your unique needs. Be sure to evaluate the following in your initial calls with therapists:
- How will you pay for therapy? Does the therapist take your insurance or otherwise offer rates that will work with your budget?
- When and where will you attend sessions? Does the therapist offer treatment at a location that is convenient for you and at times that work with your schedule?
- Most importantly, do you feel comfortable talking to this therapist and sense that you have the potential to develop a therapeutic alliance?
New to therapy? Learn about how to find a therapist here.