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Panic attacks & panic disorder: Symptoms, causes, treatment

What are panic attacks?

Panic attacks are frightening episodes where a person is overwhelmed by fear, stress or anxiety. There can also be physical symptoms, including sweating, trembling, nausea and heart palpitations.

Attacks are the main symptoms of panic disorder.

What are the symptoms?

Panic attacks tend to last around 5-20 minutes - but may last as long as an hour.

Some people get attacks several times a week, while others may get them less often.

Psychological symptoms of a panic attack include:

  • Feeling of dread
  • Feel like you are about to die
  • Detached feeling, unreal experiences
  • Confusion
  • Feeling disorientated
  • Fear of the next panic attack happening.

Physical symptoms can include:

Panic disorders

Some people may just have an isolated panic attack and may not be affected again.

Panic disorder and panic attacks are not the same - panic disorders have panic attacks as a symptom but having a panic attack does not mean you have panic disorder. Panic attacks can also be symptoms of other anxiety disorders.

Seek medical advice for symptoms of panic attacks and panic disorder.

In some cases, symptoms can be mistaken for the warning signs of a heart attack.

What causes panic attacks?

It isn't always known why a person develops symptoms.

Doctors believe a combination of factors may play a role, including:

  • Past traumatic experiences, life events - such as the death of a partner
  • Inherited tendencies or genes, such as a close relative experiencing panic attacks
  • Brain chemical changes (neurotransmitters)
  • Sensitivity to carbon monoxide
  • Over-focussing on minor physical symptoms and believing they may be far more serious - called catastrophic thinking.

Triggers for a person's panic attacks will depend on individual fears and circumstances, such as a fear of enclosed spaces.

How is panic disorder diagnosed?

The diagnosis will be diagnosed based on a person's symptoms - including panic attacks. 

A doctor will also look at a person's medical history, carry out a physical examination - and may arrange tests to rule out any medical causes of symptoms, such as thyroid problems.

A referral may be made to a mental health professional to confirm the diagnosis and to plan any treatment.

A person diagnosed with panic disorder has to let the DVLA know as it can affect driving safety.

What are the treatments for panic attacks?

Treatment can include self-help techniques and treatment through a GP or mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist.

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