What is a Panic Attack?

By Stephanie Camins – MA, LPC

verified by Psychology Today
what is a panic attack definition

“I’m going to die.”

“I’m going insane.”

“I’m losing control.”

“I won’t be able to get out of here.”

“People will think I’m crazy.”

Over 4 million people in the U.S. experience these thoughts accompanied by a litany of physical symptoms. A panic attack is a sudden, unexpected surge in adrenaline which occurs in the absence of any apparent danger. Our built in fight or flight response is activated for no obvious reason. People who tend to have panic attacks are typically hypersensitive to physical fluctuations in their body. How you perceive these physical symptoms determines your level of anxiety. If you assign catastrophic thoughts like those listed above, you are much more likely to trigger the fight or flight adrenaline release.

what is a panic attack brain

Common Physical Symptoms of a Panic Attack:

  • Rapid or heavy heartbeat
  • Shakiness
  • Tightness in chest
  • Feeling faint
  • Blurred vision
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • Fluttery or sinking feeling in your stomach

What Causes a Panic Attack?

What causes a panic attack? Looking at these physical symptoms, it’s understandable that you may associate catastrophic thoughts to what is happening. It is this intense fear which drives the anxiety scale over the panic threshold. Your first thought may not be, is this a panic attack or a heart attack? You may simply focus on the body sensation of panic attack chest pain and assume heart attack. Many people end up in the emergency room during an initial panic attack, convinced something terrible happening to them. You know you are in no apparent external danger therefore something must be internally wrong. When we turn these catastrophic thoughts inwards it’s like fanning a flame. Each catastrophic thought adds more fuel which increases adrenaline which increases physical symptoms which increases catastrophic thoughts and now you are in a full-blown panic attack.

Recognizing the signs of a panic attack at the first stages is crucial. Keeping a panic attack log will help you identify what leads up to a full blown attack. A tool box of coping strategies is also important to stop a panic attack at any level of the anxiety scale from 0 (calm) to 10 (major panic attack). More information on how to overcome panic attacks and how to prevent panic attacks is provided in the article “How to Control Panic Attacks.”

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