What is a panic attack?

A panic attack causes sudden, brief feelings of fear and strong physical reactions in response to ordinary, nonthreatening situations. When you’re having a panic attack, you may sweat a lot, have difficulty breathing and feel like your heart is racing. It may feel as if you’re having a heart attack.

Panic disorder can develop when you worry too much about having another panic attack or change behaviors to avoid having a panic attack.

How common are panic attacks?

Every year, up to 11% of Americans experience a panic attack. Approximately 2% to 3% of them go on to develop panic disorder.

Who might have panic attacks?

Anyone can experience a panic attack. These factors play a role:

  • Age: Panic attacks typically first occur during the teen or early adult years. But people of all ages, including children, can have panic attacks.
  • Gender: Women are twice as likely as men to develop panic disorder.

What causes panic attacks?

Experts don’t know why some people experience panic attacks or develop panic disorder. The brain and nervous system play key roles in how you perceive and handle fear and anxiety. Your risk of having panic attacks increases if you have:

  • Family history: Anxiety disorders, including panic disorders, often run in families. Experts aren’t sure why.
  • Mental health issues: People who have anxiety disorders, depression or other mental illness are more prone to panic attacks.
  • Substance abuse problems: Alcoholism and drug addiction can increase the risk of panic attacks.

What are the symptoms of a panic attack?

Panic attacks occur suddenly and without warning. There’s no way to stop a panic attack after it starts. Symptoms usually peak within 10 minutes after an attack starts. They disappear soon after. Signs of a panic attack include:

  • Chest pain.
  • Chills.
  • Choking or smothering sensation.
  • Difficulty breathing.
  • Fear of losing control.
  • Feeling like you’re going to die.
  • Intense feeling of terror.
  • Nausea.
  • Racing heart.
  • Sweating.
  • Tingling or numbness in fingers or toes.
  • Trembling or shaking.

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