Panic attack: Wikis


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Panic attack
Classification and external resources

The Scream (Norwegian: Skrik) an Expressionist painting by Norwegian artist Edvard Munch depicts an episode of extreme anxiety that Munch felt. Munch was known to suffer from panic attacks.
ICD-10 F41.0
ICD-9 300.01
MeSH D016584

Panic attack has been described as an episode of incredibly intense fear or apprehension that is of sudden onset.[1] The DSM-IV describes a panic attack as a discrete period of intense fear or discomfort in which (at least 4 of 13) symptoms developed abruptly and reached a peak within 10 minutes.

According to the American Psychological Association, the symptoms of a panic attack commonly last approximately thirty minutes. However, panic attacks can be as short as 15 seconds, while sometimes panic attacks may form a cyclic series of episodes, lasting for an extended period, sometimes hours. Often those afflicted will experience significant anticipatory anxiety and limited symptom attacks in between attacks, in situations where attacks have previously occurred.

The effects of a panic attack vary from person to person. Some, notably first-time sufferers, may call for emergency services. Many who experience a panic attack, mostly for the first time, fear they are having a heart attack or a nervous breakdown.[2] Experiencing a panic attack has been said to be one of the most intensely frightening, upsetting and uncomfortable experiences of a person's life.[3]



Sufferers of panic attacks often report a fear or sense of dying, "going crazy", or experiencing a heart attack or "flashing vision", feeling faint or nauseated, a numb sensation throughout the body, heavy breathing, losing control of themselves, or even dying. Some people also suffer from tunnel vision, mostly due to blood flow leaving the head to more critical parts of the body in defense. These feelings may provoke a strong urge to escape or flee the place where the attack began (a consequence of the sympathetic "fight-or-flight response") in which the hormone which causes this response is released in significant amounts.

The onset of these episodes is typically abrupt, and may have no obvious triggers.[citation needed] Although these episodes may appear to be random, they are a subset of an evolutionary response commonly referred to as fight or flight that occur out of context.[citation needed] This response floods the body with hormones, particularly epinephrine (adrenaline), that aid it in defending against harm.[3]

A panic attack is a response of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The most common symptoms may include trembling, dyspnea (shortness of breath), heart palpitations, chest pain (or chest tightness), hot flashes, cold flashes, burning sensations (particularly in the facial or neck area), sweating, nausea, dizziness (or slight vertigo), light-headedness, hyperventilation, paresthesias (tingling sensations), sensations of choking or smothering, and derealization. These physical symptoms are interpreted with alarm in people prone to panic attacks. This results in increased anxiety, and forms a positive feedback loop.[4]

Often the onset of shortness of breath and chest pain are the predominant symptoms, the sufferer incorrectly appraises this as a sign or symptom of a heart attack. This can result in the person experiencing a panic attack seeking treatment in an emergency room.

Panic attacks are distinguished from other forms of anxiety by their intensity and their sudden, episodic nature.[3] They are often experienced in conjunction with anxiety disorders and other psychological conditions, although panic attacks are not always indicative of a mental disorder.

Triggers and causes

  • Long-term, predisposing causesHeredity. Panic disorder has been found to run in families, and this may mean that inheritance plays a strong role in determining who will get it. However, many people who have no family history of the disorder develop it. Various twin studies where one identical twin has an anxiety disorder have reported an incidence ranging from 31 to 88 percent of the other twin also having an anxiety disorder diagnosis. Environmental factors such as an overly cautious view of the world expressed by parents and cumulative stress over time have been found to be causes.[3]
  • Phobias — People will often experience panic attacks as a direct result of exposure to a phobic object or situation.
  • Short-term triggering causes — Significant personal loss, including an emotional attachment to a romantic partner, life transitions, significant life change, and as seen above, stimulants such as caffeine or nicotine, can act as triggers.[3]
  • Maintaining causes — Avoidance of panic provoking situations or environments, anxious/negative self-talk ("what-if" thinking), mistaken beliefs ("these symptoms are harmful and/or dangerous"), withheld feelings, lack of assertiveness.[3]
  • Lack of assertiveness — A growing body of evidence supports the idea that those that suffer from panic attacks engage in a passive style of communication or interactions with others. This communication style, while polite and respectful, is also characteristically un-assertive. This un-assertive way of communicating seems to contribute to panic attacks while being frequently present in those that are afflicted with panic attacks.[3]
  • Medications — Sometimes panic attacks may be a listed side effect of medications such as Ritalin (methylphenidate) or even fluoroquinolone type antibiotics.[5] These may be a temporary side effect, only occurring when a patient first starts a medication, or could continue occurring even after the patient is accustomed to the drug, which likely would warrant a medication change in either dosage, or type of drug. Nearly the entire SSRI class of antidepressants can cause increased anxiety in the beginning of use. It is not uncommon for inexperienced users to have panic attacks while weaning on or off the medication, especially ones prone to anxiety.
  • Alcohol, medication or drug withdrawal — Various substances both prescribed and unprescribed can cause panic attacks to develop as part of their withdrawal syndrome or rebound effect. Alcohol withdrawal and benzodiazepine withdrawal are the most well known to cause these effects as a rebound withdrawal symptom of their tranquillising properties.[6]
  • Situationally bound panic attacks — Associating certain situations with panic attacks, due to experiencing one in that particular situation, can create a cognitive or behavioral predisposition to having panic attacks in certain situations (situationally bound panic attacks). It is a form of classical conditioning. Examples of this include college, work, or deployment. [3] See PTSD
  • Pharmacological triggers — Certain chemical substances, mainly stimulants but also certain depressants, can either contribute pharmacologically to a constellation of provocations, and thus trigger a panic attack or even a panic disorder, or directly induce one.[7][8] This includes caffeine, amphetamine, alcohol and many more. Some sufferers of panic attacks also report phobias of specific drugs or chemicals, that thus have a merely psychosomatic effect, thereby functioning as drug-triggers by non-pharmacological means.[9]

Physiological considerations

While the various symptoms of a panic attack may feel that the body is failing, it is in fact protecting itself from harm. The various symptoms of a panic attack can be understood as follows. First, there is frequently (but not always) the sudden onset of fear with little provoking stimulus. This leads to a release of adrenaline (epinephrine) which brings about the so-called fight-or-flight response wherein the person's body prepares for strenuous physical activity. This leads to an increased heart rate (tachycardia), rapid breathing (hyperventilation) which may be perceived as shortness of breath (dyspnea), and sweating (which increases grip and aids heat loss). Because strenuous activity rarely ensues, the hyperventilation leads to a drop in carbon dioxide levels in the lungs and then in the blood. This leads to shifts in blood pH (respiratory alkalosis or hypocapnia), which in turn can lead to many other symptoms, such as tingling or numbness, dizziness, burning and lightheadedness. Moreover, the release of adrenaline during a panic attack causes vasoconstriction resulting in slightly less blood flow to the head which causes dizziness and lightheadedness. A panic attack can cause blood sugar to be drawn away from the brain and towards the major muscles. It is also possible for the person experiencing such an attack to feel as though they are unable to catch their breath, and they begin to take deeper breaths, which also acts to decrease carbon dioxide levels in the blood.


Diagnostic criteria

DSM-IV Diagnostic Criteria for Panic Attack

A discrete period of intense fear or discomfort, in which four (or more) of the following symptoms developed abruptly and reached a peak within 10 minutes:

  • Palpitations, or accelerated heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
  • Feeling of choking
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Nausea or abdominal distress
  • Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint
  • Derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself)
  • Fear of losing control or going crazy
  • Fear of dying
  • Paresthesias (numbness or tingling sensations)
  • Chills or hot flashes


Agoraphobia is actually not a fear of certain places but a fear of having panic attacks in certain places.[citation needed] Panic attacks are commonly linked to agoraphobia and the fear of not being able to escape a bad situation. Many who experience panic attacks feel trapped and unable to free themselves, or severe social anxiety.

Agoraphobia is an anxiety disorder which primarily consists of the fear of experiencing a difficult or embarrassing situation from which the sufferer cannot escape. As a result, severe sufferers of agoraphobia may become confined to their homes, experiencing difficulty traveling from this "safe place". The word "agoraphobia" is an English adoption of the Greek words agora (αγορά) and phobos (φόβος), literally translated as "a fear of the marketplace" usually applies to any or all public places; however the essence of agoraphobia is a fear of panic attacks especially if they occur in public as the victim may feel like he or she has no escape and in the case of agoraphobia caused by social phobia or social anxiety, may be very embarrassed of having one publicly in the first place. This translation is the reason for the common misconception that agoraphobia is a fear of open spaces, and is not clinically accurate.

People who have had a panic attack in certain situations may develop irrational fears, called phobias, of these situations and begin to avoid them. Eventually, the pattern of avoidance and level of anxiety about another attack may reach the point where individuals with panic disorder are unable to drive or even step out of the house. At this stage, the person is said to have panic disorder with agoraphobia. This can be one of the most harmful side-effects of panic disorder as it can prevent sufferers from seeking treatment in the first place. It should be noted that upwards of 90% of agoraphobics achieve a full recovery.[citation needed]

Panic disorder

People who have repeated, persistent attacks or feel severe anxiety about having another attack are said to have panic disorder. Panic disorder is strikingly different from other types of anxiety disorders in that panic attacks are often sudden and unprovoked.[10]


Panic disorder can be effectively treated with a variety of interventions including psychological therapies, medication[3], and self-help techniques, with the evidence that cognitive behaviour therapy has the longest duration of effect, followed by specific selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors[11].

Cognitive behavioral therapy

Cognitive behavioural treatments are considered the first line of treatment [12]. The first part of therapy is largely informational; many people are greatly helped by simply understanding exactly what panic disorder is, and how many others suffer from it. Many people who suffer from panic disorder are worried that their panic attacks mean they're 'going crazy' or that the panic might induce a heart attack. 'Cognitive restructuring' (changing one's way of thinking) helps people replace those thoughts with more realistic, positive ways of viewing the attacks.


Paper bag rebreathing

Many panic attack sufferers as well as doctors recommend breathing into a paper bag as an effective short-term treatment of an acute panic attack.[13] However, this treatment has been criticised by others as ineffective and possibly hazardous to the patient, even potentially worsening the panic attack.[14] They say it can fatally lower oxygen levels in the blood stream,[15] and increase carbon dioxide levels, which in turn has been found to be a major cause of panic attacks.[16]

It is therefore important to discover whether hyperventilation is truly involved in each case. If it is, then rebalancing the oxygen/CO2 levels in the blood and/or re-establishing an even, measured breathing pattern is an appropriate treatment which may be also achieved by extending the outbreath either by counting or even humming.[17]

Increased risk of heart attack and stroke in menopausal women

A recent study suggests that menopausal women with panic disorder and many occurrences of panic attacks have a threefold higher risk of suffering heart attack or stroke over the next five years. The researchers believe that panic attacks or more accurately their associated symptoms (chest pain, dyspnea) can be manifestations of undiagnosed cardiovascular disease, or result in heart damage due to cardiovascular stress in patients with panic disorder and many panic attacks over periods of years.[18] However, the study did not find that isolated cases of panic attacks in patients without panic disorder or agoraphobia would lead to immediate heart damage, nor did it prove that the correlation between panic disorder and strokes was causal, or that it couldn't be attributed to the cardiovascular effects of medication that many panic disorder patients receive, such as SSRIs and benzodiazepines. For example one study albeit in the elderly found that the consumption of benzodiazepines combined with analgesics in elderly men is correlated with an increased risk of dying of ischaemic heart disease in a small study. The study doesn't say if this is to be blamed on the benzodiazepine drug in this case nitrazepam, the analgetics or their combination.[19]

Limited symptom attack

Many people being treated for panic attacks begin to experience limited symptom attacks. These panic attacks are less comprehensive with fewer than 4 bodily symptoms being experienced.[3]


  1. ^
  2. ^ Reid, Wilson (1996). Don't Panic: Taking Control of Your Anxiety Attacks. Revised Edition, HC. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Bourne, E. (2005). The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook, 4th Edition: New Harbinger Press.
  4. ^ Klerman, Gerald L.; Hirschfeld, Robert M. A.; Weissman, Myrna M. (1993). Panic Anxiety and Its Treatments: Report of the World Psychiatric Association Presidential Educational Program Task Force. American Psychiatric Association. pp. 44. ISBN 978-0880486842. 
  5. ^ Sternbach H, State R (1997). "Antibiotics: neuropsychiatric effects and psychotropic interactions". Harv Rev Psychiatry 5 (4): 214–26. doi:10.3109/10673229709000304. PMID 9427014. 
  6. ^ Cohen SI (February 1995). "Alcohol and benzodiazepines generate anxiety, panic and phobias" (PDF). J R Soc Med 88 (2): 73–7. PMID 7769598. PMC 1295099. 
  7. ^ MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia: Panic disorder
  8. ^ Caffeine and Panic Disorder
  9. ^ Psychosomatic And Drug-induced Panic Attacks
  10. ^ Panic Disorder: Panic Attacks and Agoraphobia -
  11. ^ Anxiety: management of anxiety (panic disorder, with or without agoraphobia, and generalised anxiety disorder) in adults in primary, secondary and community care. National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence. Clinical Guideline 22. Issue date: April 2007 [1] ISBN 1-84629-400-2
  12. ^
  13. ^ Breathing in and out of a paper bag
  14. ^ Hyperventilation Syndrome - Can I treat hyperventilation syndrome by breathing into a paper bag?
  15. ^ Breathing into a paper bag restricts the fresh air you are able to get. Without fresh air, less oxygen is inhaled. So, breathing into a paper bag, it is argued, dangerously lowers the amount of oxygen in your bloodstream. There have been several documented cases of heart attack patients incorrectly thinking they had hyperventilation syndrome and fatally worsening their heart attacks by breathing into a paper bag.
  16. ^ To make matters worse, several studies now show a link between high concentrations of CO2 and panic attacks, which means that artificially increasing CO2 in inhaled air is likely to trigger more feelings of panic in patients who suffer from anxiety.
  17. ^
  18. ^
  19. ^ Merlo J; Hedblad B, Ogren M, Ranstam J, Ostergren PO, Ekedahl A, Hanson BS, Isacsson SO, Liedholm H, Melander A (1996). "Increased risk of ischaemic heart disease mortality in elderly men using anxiolytics-hypnotics and analgesics. Results of the 10-year follow-up of the prospective population study "Men born in 1914", Malmo, Sweden". Eur J Clin Pharmacol 49 (4): 261–5. PMID 8857070. 

16. # ^ Carbonell, David. (2004) Panic Attacks Workbook: A Guided Program for Beating the Panic Trick. Berkley, CA: Ulysses Press.

External links


Up to date as of January 23, 2010

From Wikibooks, the open-content textbooks collection

< Psychiatric Disorders | Anxiety disorders

A panic attack is not a disorder in itself, but a syndrome, or cluster of symptoms that may be part of a number of disorders. It is a cardinal feature of panic disorder, but can be caused by almost any anxiety disorder (with the exception of Generalized Anxiety Disorder).

A panic attack begins quickly, and peaks within 10 minutes. The entire attack usually lasts no more than 20 minutes, and attacks that occur for over an hour are very rare. However, once the attack is finished, patients may have residual symptoms as they recover from what is a very frightening event.

Symptoms of a panic attack include the following: Palpitations, pounding heart, or increased heart rate, Sweating, Trembling or shaking, Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering, Feeling of choking, Chest pain, Nausea, Dizziness, Derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization, Feeling of losing control/going crazy, Fear of dying, Paresthesias, and Chills. Among these symptoms, the most common, and perhaps most central to the disorder are the pulmonary ones: the feeling of shortness of breath and/or choking.

Simple English

Panic attacks are sudden, discrete periods of intense anxiety, mounting physiological arousal, fear, stomach problems (spastic colon) and discomfort that are associated with a variety of somatic and cognitive symptoms.[1] The onset of these episodes is typically abrupt, and may have no obvious triggers. Although these episodes may appear random, they are a subset of an evolutionary response commonly referred to as fight or flight that occur out of context. This response floods the body with hormones, particularly epinephrine (adrenaline), that aid in defending itself from harm.[2] Experiencing a panic attack is said to be one of the most intensely frightening, upsetting and uncomfortable experiences of a person's life.[2]

According to the American Psychological Association the symptoms of a panic attack commonly last approximately ten minutes. However, panic attacks can be as short as 1–5 minutes, while sometimes panic attacks may form a cyclic series of episodes, lasting for an extended period, sometimes hours. Often those afflicted will experience significant anticipatory anxiety and limited symptom attacks in between attacks, in situations where attacks have previously occurred, and in situations where they feel "trapped". That is, where escape would be obvious and/or embarrassing.

Panic attacks also affect people differently. Experienced sufferers may be able to completely "ride out" a panic attack with little to no obvious symptoms or external manifestations. Others, notably first-time sufferers, may even call for emergency services; many who experience a panic attack for the first time fear they are having a heart attack or a nervous breakdown.[3]


  1. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders
  2. 2.0 2.1 Bourne, E. (2005). The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook, 4th Edition: New Harbinger Press.
  3. Reid, Wilson (1996), [Expression error: Unexpected < operator Don't Panic: Taking Control of Your Anxiety Attacks. Revised Edition, HC] 

Other websites

Panic Attack Treatment Panic Away Info

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