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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.

Panic attacks are the main symptoms of panic disorder.

What are the symptoms of a panic attack?

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

Some people get panic 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:

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

What causes panic attacks?

It isn't always known why a person develops panic disorder or has panic attacks.

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 small 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?

Panic disorder will be diagnosed based on a person's symptoms - including panic attacks. However, experiencing panic attacks doesn't always mean a person has panic disorder.

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

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