Panic attacks are very intense episodes of panic, anxiety and fear. People who experience these attacks will explain that they come on very suddenly without warning at inopportune times. Often it brings on gripping fear, stomach discomfort and shortness of breath.
If you ask your doctor “what is a panic attack?” they will respond by describing the physical symptoms. The few already mentioned above (gripping fear, nausea, shortness of breath) are just the tip of the iceberg. The symptoms can also include sweating, shaking hands, choking sensation, chest pains, dizziness, hot flushes, chills, muscle pain, and an urgent need to urinate or defecate.
If you ask a person with personal experience “What is a panic attack?” they will give you a more different picture. The symptoms make the event very scary, but the personal human experience is very painful beyond just symptoms. Experiencing a panic attack can be humiliating, can lead to avoidance of work or school or social functions, and can dramatically decrease the quality of life for anyone with them.
For a third perspective you could ask the spouse of someone with panic attacks; “What is a panic attack?” They will give you yet another picture. To a person close to someone having a panic attack, the experience can feel very scary and out of their control. Their spouse may report being worried that a panic attack is going on. The attention immediately shifts to that possibility. The certainty that a panic attack is coming grows. They may try to talk their spouse down, saying reassuring things or denying that they see any signs of a panic attack. Eventually the panic attack occurs, and they can only standby and try to offer whatever comfort possible while their spouse suffers yet another panic attack.
Panic attacks are brought on by a buildup of anxiety. Eventually this anxiety reaches a breaking point, and a panic attack occurs. The buildup of anxiety can be slow and almost imperceptible to you. Almost everyone who experiences panic attacks has certain situations or locations that greatly increase their anxiety. The easiest way to reduce anxiety is to simply leave that place or avoid that situation. While this is an easy way to handle things, it will not bring any lasting benefit, particularly if that is a location or situation that you WANT to feel comfortable in.
Though certain places and situations can be trigger points for your attacks, some panic attacks may not be triggered by anything obvious at all. Reaching the point of having an actual panic attack is similar to boiling a pot of water on the stove. The heat rising is like your anxiety level rising. The heat or anxiety can vary quite a bit with not much visible effect in the water. Once a certain temperature is reached, water boils. Once a certain level of anxiety is reached, you end up with a panic attack. Similarly to boiling water, reducing the heat or lowering the level of anxiety will avoid the boiling water, the panic attack.
A panic attack can be experienced for as little as 15 seconds and for as long as thirty minutes. It is an unpredictable affair, and can vary not only in length but also intensity and symptom. One of the core experiences that make a panic attack so scary and uncomfortable is the sense that you are dying. Feeling like your life is threatened is a traumatic and intensely uncomfortable experience. Many people will go through their entire life never feeling like their life is genuinely threatened. If you suffer from panic attacks, you may have that experience as often as several times a day.
Panic attack will often be associated with a specific phobia that an individual may have. For instance, someone may be terrified of flying on planes. What is a panic attack for this person will be strongly related to flying. They may have a panic attack triggered during a plane’s takeoff, or even simply on the way to the airport. The high level of anxiety surrounding the event serves as a catalyst to the panic attack.
If someone asks you “What is a panic attack?” and “How is a panic attack avoided?”, you can respond: Anxiety levels rising lead to some specific warning signals (physical anxiety symptoms), which precede a full-out panic attack. To avoid the panic attacks altogether, the anxiety itself is removed. Reducing and removing anxiety leaves you calm, relaxed and relieved. When you are truly calm, relaxed, and relieved, it becomes impossible to have a panic attack.