Q: What is a panic attack?
A: A panic attack is a sudden surge of fear and anxiety that usually comes out of nowhere. Symptoms may include sweating, nausea, chest pain, racing heartbeat, shortness of breath, dizziness, feeling faint, and a sense of impending doom.
Most of these can also be caused by a heart attack, so unless you’ve had panic attacks before and are certain that’s what you’re experiencing, you should go to the emergency room if you have symptoms that may be related to a heart attack.
Once a heart attack and other medical problems have been ruled out, your doctor may refer you to a mental health professional for a diagnosis. Many people have one panic attack and never experience another, while others have repeated attacks that grow in frequency and intensity. If you’ve had multiple attacks, you may have a chronic condition called panic disorder, which, if untreated, can lead to phobias.
The underlying cause of panic attacks varies from person to person. Some experts believe the condition is largely psychological. Other factors that may play a role include heredity, significant stress in your life and the side effects of some drugs (prescription or illegal ones) or dietary supplements.
Women, especially after age 50, are more prone to attacks. In addition, some research has found an association between panic attacks and certain diseases, such as irritable bowel syndrome and mitral valve prolapse, a heart valve abnormality.
Because the causes and triggers vary, so do the treatments. Cognitive behavioral therapy helps many people. For others, antidepressants or tranquilizers, sometimes combined with psychotherapy, can be effective at reducing symptoms.