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What is a panic attack?

Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiology (Cardiovascular Disease)
You can almost think of this as acute episodes that are born from things that normally wouldn’t be a cause of stress, like feeling doom when you get in a car. In other words, it’s an exaggerated flight-or-fight response that doesn’t necessarily match the situation. If you get panic attacks, you experience symptoms such as shortness of breath, an elevated heart rate, sweating or chills, nausea, dizziness, trembling, and a sense of dissociation, along with intense fear. 
According to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, a panic attack is the abrupt onset of intense fear that reaches a peak within a few minutes. Panic attacks can be very debilitating and produce numbness and tingling, breathing problems, chest pain, gastrointestinal problems, hot flash or chills, dizziness, and an immense fear of dying.
Susie Whitworth
Nursing
A panic attack is a sudden, overwhelming attack of fear. It often seems to occur for no reason and can lead to other disorders such as extreme phobias and even extreme fear of leaving home.
William B. Salt II., MD
Gastroenterology
Repeated episodes of extreme anxiety-associated symptoms are called
panic attacks. The person does not know what triggers the attack. The
attacks last from five to thirty minutes and may include any of the
symptoms listed. An example of a panic attack is the sudden onset of
dizziness, a racing and pounding heart, fear of losing control, and chest
pain occurring for no apparent reason. Panic attacks can lead to phobias.
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A panic attack is a sudden wave of intense anxiety, apprehension, fearfulness, or terror, with physical symptoms such as shortness of breath, palpitations, sweating, and chest pains. Attacks may occur under stress or for no apparent reason (spontaneous panic attacks).

During panic attacks, people may feel dissociated from the world, and even from themselves -- a phenomenon some describe as akin to watching a movie of yourself. They may think they're losing their minds. But panic attacks are not a sign of psychosis -- once the panic attack passes, the person no longer feels "crazy" or out of control.

A panic attack usually lasts five to 30 minutes, but it can continue for as long as several hours. Although panic attacks typically occur during the day, they can also rouse someone from deep sleep. Because they cause symptoms throughout the body, panic attacks can be mistaken for neurological, gastrointestinal, heart, or lung illnesses.

A panic attack can be an isolated event, or attacks may occur repeatedly. Repeated panic attacks are often triggered by a particular situation. Some people develop anticipatory anxiety when they are in situations that have previously induced panic attacks, such as driving or riding over a bridge, shopping in a crowded store, or waiting in line. The common denominator is a situation that makes a person feel endangered and unable to escape.

A panic attack can also be a symptom of another anxiety disorder, such as panic disorder, specific phobia, post-traumatic stress disorder, or generalized anxiety disorder. In these cases, however, a panic attack is one of many symptoms.
Sheri Van Dijk
Psychiatry
A panic attack is an intense episode of anxiety during which you experience multiple physical sensations such as rapid heartbeat, dizziness, nausea, trembling, sweating, shortness of breath, tingling in your hands and feet, and visual disturbance. In addition to these physical sensations, you may experience fears of going crazy, dying, or losing control, or thoughts of needing to escape the situation. At least four of these symptoms are present in a full-blown panic attack.
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Panic attacks were once dismissed as nerves or weakness, but experts now  know they are a true medical condition. In this video, Grady Carter, MD, of Coliseum Medical Centers, describes panic attacks.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.