What exactly is a “Panic Attack”?

by Sarah Moore

Panic Attacks: What are they?

We’ve all heard of panic attacks before, on television, in the movies and even in day-to-day conversation. In today’s age, people tend to use the term lightly, as an expression of a reaction to a stressful event or fearful encounter. One might say, “When I heard that the company was planning to downsize next year, I just about had a panic attack”. But to use the term this way does not describe what a panic attack truly is: a sudden, unexpected feeling of overwhelming and disabling anxiety, often with no premeditating cause.

So what exactly does a panic attack involve? The DSM-5 defines a panic attack as involving four (4) or more of the following symptoms:

  • Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
  • A feeling of choking
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Nausea or abdominal distress
  • Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint
  • Feelings of unreality (derealization) or being detached from oneself (depersonalization)
  • Fear of losing control or going crazy
  • Fear of dying
  • Numbness or tingling sensations
  • Chills or hot flushes

While it’s true that anyone can experience a panic attack, they are most commonly associated with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or Specific Phobias. Does this mean someone who experiences a panic attack has one of these conditions? Not necessarily. The DSM-V defines the diagnostic criteria for Panic disorder as suffering from frequent, often unexpected panic attacks. In addition, at least one attack must be followed by the fear that more attacks will occur, causing an individual to change his or her behavior in order to avoid triggering such attacks. It is important to note that other possible causes for panic attacks, such as side effects from drugs or medications must be ruled out before someone can be diagnosed with any of the above disorders. Panic attacks can be debilitating, but with the right treatment, recovery is possible.

If you believe that you or a loved one has or may be suffering from panic attacks, the psychiatrists, psychologists, psychiatric nurse practitioners or psychotherapists at Arista Counseling can help you. Please contact our Bergen County, NJ or Manhattan, NY offices respectively at (201)-368-3700 or (212)-722-1920 to set up an appointment, or visit http://www.counselingpsychotherapynjny.com for more information.


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