Panic Attack Symptoms, Causes and Effects

A panic attack can be one of the most frightening experiences of your life. A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause.

When panic attacks occur, you might think you're losing control, having a heart attack or even dying.

Nearly 2 percent of Americans, or roughly 3 million people, may suffer from a panic disorder at some point in their lives, according to MedicineNet.

If you or someone you love suffers from a panic disorder, you may already know that this type of disorder is slightly different from other anxiety disorders.

If you've ever had a panic attack, you're familiar with this kind of experience. Your body mysteriously triggers the fight-or-flight response when no danger really exists.

Basically, you get the same sensations you might get if you heard a burglar break into your house in the middle of the night, only, nothing nearly that frightening or threatening has actually occurred.

Those who have panic disorders usually suffer from sudden panic attacks that occur with little warning for almost no reason at all. If you are suddenly experiencing an episode of intense anxiety and fear that sets off physical reactions with no apparent reason, you have an episode called a panic attack.

Multiple occurrences of this extremely common health issue are indicative of panic disorder, which can be very problematic and frightening.

Constant fears of going crazy, having a heart attack or dying are just some examples of panicked thoughts that may disrupt your everyday activities.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 6 million American adults have been diagnosed with panic disorder.

With proper knowledge and finding the right treatment, you or someone you know who suffers from this disorder can overcome the symptoms and regain healthy living.

What's The Difference Between a Panic Attack and Panic Disorder?

Occasional panic attacks are actually pretty common. Not everyone who experiences occasional panic attacks develops panic disorder.

Panic Disorder
is a formal psychiatric diagnosis. If you have a panic attack occasionally–or even frequently–but don’t spend much time worrying about having another one, you do not have panic disorder. 

If you have panic attacks and you tend to know what causes them, you don’t have panic disorder. You can still be helped by counseling if you’d like to know how to better deal with having a panic attacks, but Panic Disorder is different.

Panic Disorder is only diagnosed if you have unexpected panic attacks that continue to occur, and you’ve been spending at least one month continuously worried about having another panic attack, or what might happen the next time you have one (losing control, having a heart attack, ‘going crazy’, etc).

What Are the Types of Panic Disorders?

Panic disorders are often classified into six types, including anxiety disorders, phobias and more.

Panic Disorder: Characterized by Anxiety or Panic Attacks

Fear and worry are the two chief characteristics of panic disorder.

Even with the absence of actual danger, affected individuals undergo physical reactions, such as nausea, heavy breathing and shaking, as if some sort of threat is imminent. These people also suffer from constant worry about when the next panic attack will occur.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

When you are disturbed by bad things but the chances of them actually happening are very slim, you may have generalized anxiety disorder.

Under such conditions, you may also simply feel worried all the time without any justification.

These anxieties are so abnormal they become an impediment to your daily routines and your ability to unwind.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Another example of panic or anxiety disorder is obsessive-compulsive disorder. Characteristics include unwanted behaviors and thoughts that overwhelm your self-control.

For instance, your mind can’t help but worry if you have turned off the iron or stove before leaving the house. You may also feel the compulsion to excessively repeat certain routines such as the simple washing of hands.


The fearing of specific objects, activities and scenarios to an exaggerated degree are phobias.

Your fright tends to be out of proportion even if the things you fear hardly pose any danger. Common examples are fear of heights, flying, insects and snakes.

People with phobias often desperately avoid the things that frighten them, as the confrontation of the things often makes their condition even worse.

Social Anxiety Disorder

Also called social phobia, social anxiety disorder is characterized by the extreme fear of getting a bad reputation. This condition tends to make individuals very shy and causes them to steer clear of social interactions for fear of getting embarrassed in public.

Stage fright is a prime example of social phobia.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Traumatic events such as near-death experiences or participation in a war may cause people to feel sad, frightened and detached from other people.

With post-traumatic stress disorder, such negative effects persist for long periods and lead to hypervigilance and an inability to live normally.

What Causes a Panic Attack or Anxiety Attack?

According to the American Psychological Association, the exact causes of panic or anxiety attacks remain unclear.

On the other hand, some studies point to genetic and biochemical origins. The attacks are also often associated with phobias, substance abuse, depression and suicide risk.

What Are the Signs of a Panic Disorder?

A single occurrence of panic is nothing to worry about. Only when panic attacks become repeated episodes and cause a major change in one’s day-to-day activities do they become a problem.

Emotional Symptoms of Anxiety and Panic Attacks

Suffering from repeated panic attacks certainly affects the emotional health of an individual.

Besides inexplicable fear and anxiety, common emotional symptoms of anxiety and panic attacks include the following:
  • Inability to focus
  • Failure to relax
  • Expecting danger
  • Absentmindedness
  • Getting easily annoyed
  • Feelings of tension
  • Physical Symptoms of Anxiety and Panic Attacks
Anxiety and panic attacks also have physical manifestations.

The symptoms that people experience include the following:
  • Excessive sweating
  • Shaking
  • Muscle contractions
  • Inability to sleep
  • Feeling exhausted
  • Difficulty in breathing
  • Nausea
  • Accelerated heart rate
  • Chest pain
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Short-Term and Long-Term Effects of Panic-Related Anxiety

A typical episode of panic-related anxiety only lasts up to 10 minutes.

During the onset, the individual suffers from the physical and emotional short-term effects mentioned in the previous sections. Headaches, discomfort and light headedness are also common.

When the panic-related anxiety becomes a chronic issue, the person starts to experience detrimental long-term effects.

For instance, the combination of tension, lack of sleep and fear lessens the effectiveness of the immune system, the result of which is the increased likelihood of getting an infection.

The increase in blood pressure has negative repercussions for the heart and kidneys. You may also soon suffer from depression and difficulty eating.

Is There a Test or Self-Assessment I Can Do?

While doctors make use of medical histories and physical exams as part of their evaluation in order to diagnose panic disorder, you can also administer self-screening for such a condition.

These tests typically require listing the symptoms you felt, taking note of consequences felt after the panic attack, and mentioning how often you felt depressed, guilty and more. Even though these tests can be done personally, the results must still be forwarded to a credible healthcare professional for an accurate assessment. To find a professional near you, call us at 1-888-344-8837.

Panic Medication: Anti-Anxiety Drug Options

With medication, you or a loved one with anxiety issues can ease off some of the symptoms. While they can be helpful, anti-anxiety drugs are known to have side effects and safety concerns.

Panic Drugs: Possible Options

Doctor sometimes prescribe antidepressants to address the issue of recurring panic attacks, although these drugs take a couple of weeks to take effect. Alternately, you may be prescribed benzodiazepines. These drugs can bring quick results and may provide a speedy recovery from ongoing panic attacks.

Medication Side Effects

In an article by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, it is stated that anti-anxiety drugs have been found to have adverse effects.

Common side effects of antidepressants include:
  • weight gain
  • upset stomach
  • nausea
  • sexual dysfunction
  • sleepiness
  • headaches and more
Benzodiazepines can cause over-sedation and lead to addiction.

Anti-Panic Drug Addiction, Dependence and Withdrawal

Despite the absence of significant side effects, benzodiazepines are known to be highly addictive and have major withdrawal symptoms.

Antidepressants also have dependence and withdrawal issues. When you suddenly stop taking the latter, for instance, you may undergo extreme depression and exhaustion. Symptoms similar to the flu may also be apparent.

Medication Overdose

Medications used to treat anxiety are proven to be safe when taken alone.

Large doses also rarely pose any complications. However, combining the medications with alcohol, painkillers or sleeping pills isn’t recommended because the combination poses a lethal risk.

Certain groups of people, such as the elderly and pregnant women, are also prone to serious side effects.

Depression and Anxiety

People with anxiety disorders are also found to be depressed quite often. As statistical studies have indicated, almost 50 percent of people who have been diagnosed with depression are also afflicted by anxiety disorder.

Fortunately, both problems can be addressed either separately or together. Given that both conditions have some differences in emotional and physical symptoms, one must also be aware that depression and anxiety aren’t the same.

Dual Diagnosis: Addiction and Panic/Anxiety

On a related note, panic or anxiety is also known to be an underlying cause of certain addictions that are observed in people.

Both issues – the panic disorder and the addiction issue – must be treated simultaneously to increase the chances of long-term recovery.

Getting Help for a Panic Disorder

You should be aware that in certain situations panic attacks may be unavoidable.

A healthy combination of daily exercise and a balanced diet helps lessen the likelihood of a panic attack. Avoiding caffeinated beverages and taking herbal remedies may also help reduce stress and decrease the symptoms.

It is important to find help on treating panic disorder for you or your loved one.

Recovering from panic disorder is difficult, if not impossible, without outside help. In the meantime, you can start by creating an action plan to alleviate your anxiety, fear and panic attacks.

This may also be helpful: Psych Guides - How To Find Help