What Is A Panic Attack? Exploring The Definition, Symptoms, And Treatments

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated December 1, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is having suicidal thoughts, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988. Support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Panic attacks can stop you in your tracks with overwhelming fear, anxiety, and debilitating physical symptoms. Your body's nervous system is impacted by anxiety, which can cause physical symptoms during panic attacks to keep you alert and aware of potential dangers when threats are perceived. However, when you struggle to process emotions effectively, those effects can linger and worsen over time. If you think you might be experiencing panic attacks, knowing what criteria is involved in panic disorder, common symptoms of panic attacks, and how to find relief may be helpful.

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What Is A Panic Attack?

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), panic attacks are sudden and overwhelming surges of fear, often without an apparent cause, that far exceed typical stress reactions and may make you feel like you're dying. 

Panic attacks often happen without warning and severely interfere with your ability to function at home, school, work, or anywhere else until the episode passes. Experiencing a panic attack can cause intense fear and anxiety about future occurrences. You may notice that you avoid places where you've had an episode or situations that may incite your panic. Staying home where it's "safe" may feel more manageable and desirable over time, causing you to socially withdraw to prevent incidents. 

Panic attacks may be expected or unexpected. Unexpected attacks can involve intense and sudden feelings of fear, extreme nervousness, or panic without warning. Reactions to the perceived threat are often disproportionate to actual danger. Expected panic attacks occur in response to a real threat or known inciting event. 

When Do Panic Attacks Signify Panic Disorder? 

A panic attack is a single instance of debilitating and overwhelming fear or anxiety interfering with the ability to function. While many experience one or two panic attacks throughout their lives, often related to drastic or unexpected life changes, some people develop a panic disorder characterized by recurring episodes and constant fear of another incident.  

Recognizing Panic Attack Symptoms

While panic attacks can present in many variations, symptoms are usually short-lived, peaking and fading away within approximately 30 minutes. People often feel extreme fatigue after an episode. Symptoms of these attacks can include the following: 

  • A racing or irregular heartbeat or pounding in the heart 

  • The sense that one is having a heart attack

  • Chest pain 

  • Sweating

  • Shaking

  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing 

  • A sense of choking 

  • Nausea or stomachache

  • Dizziness, unsteadiness, lightheadedness, or faintness 

  • Alternating hot and cold sensations

  • Numbness or tingling

  • Feelings of dissociation or detachment

  • Fear of losing control, "going crazy," or dying

Panic attacks generally peak at 10 minutes and fade around 30 minutes. However, they may last longer.


Panic Attacks In Children And Adolescents

Children and adolescents often don't have the ability to understand or express their emotional reactions, so panic attacks may present more as physical symptoms like head and stomach pain. However, they may also have many of the typical adult symptoms. As they experience more panic attacks, children and teens may become anxious most of the time, constantly fearing another episode. 

What Causes Panic Disorder?

While the medical community hasn't conclusively named a cause for panic disorders, some common risk factors are often seen in people who experience panic attacks, including the following: 

  • A family history of panic disorder or panic attacks

  • Major life stressors, like death or illness

  • Physical or sexual abuse during childhood

  • Traumatic experiences

  • Drastic life changes, like divorce or childbirth

  • Smoking

  • Excessive caffeine use

If you are facing or witnessing abuse of any kind, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7 for support. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or text "START" to 88788. You can also use the online chat.

Panic Disorder Comorbidity

Panic attacks often occur alongside, or comorbid to, other mental health conditions. Alcohol and substance use disorders are common, as many people with mental illnesses self-medicate to cope with symptoms. Other anxiety disorders, like agoraphobia or social anxiety disorder, mood disorders like depression, and increased stress frequently develop comorbidly with panic disorder. 

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources.

Complications Related To Untreated Panic Disorder

Untreated panic attacks may cause significant difficulty in caring for oneself. Fear of a panic attack can lead to new worries, contributing to the constant state of anxiety and difficulty relaxing. Below are a few other potential complications of untreated panic disorder:  

  • The development of specific phobias

  • A physical health condition

  • Intense avoidance of social situations where you may have a panic attack, sometimes to the point of the development of agoraphobia 

  • Difficulty at home, work, or school

  • Mood disorders, anxiety disorders, or other psychological conditions

  • An increased risk of suicidal thoughts or behaviors

  • Alcohol or substance use disorders

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or urges, call the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or text 988 to talk to a crisis provider over SMS. They are available 24/7 to offer support. 988 also offers an online chat for those with an internet connection.

Treatments For Panic Disorder

Psychotherapy, also called talk therapy, is often considered the most effective treatment to manage the effect of panic attacks and panic disorder. Your doctor or psychiatrist can determine if medication would be a helpful addition to your treatment plan. 

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is the preferred treatment for adults' and children's panic attacks and anxiety disorders. CBT helps clients tolerate the physical symptoms of their attacks as they reshape their thinking patterns to gain a more productive perspective and build healthy ways to cope with symptoms. 

Coping skills for a panic attack may include the following:

  • Deep breathing exercises

  • Desensitization and building tolerance through controlled exposure

  • Progressive muscle relaxation

  • Positive visualization of a relaxing setting

  • Focusing on panic as a symptom of a medical condition that will pass

  • Keeping essential oils handy for their calming effects 

  • Getting away from the stressor and finding a peaceful spot

  • Focusing your attention on an object to distract your mind

  • Repeating a mantra or positive affirmation

  • Recentering your mind by going for a walk or getting light exercise

  • Talking to someone

  • Learning what incites panic and using coping skills when it occurs 

"Treatment for panic disorders is usually quite effective. Treatment will help you learn to recognize that the symptoms are not life-threatening. You will also learn coping skills and ways to relax to decrease the intensity and length of the panic attack." — Johns Hopkins Medicine

How To Help Someone Through A Panic Attack

If a friend or loved one experiences a panic attack and you want to help, remain calm, guide them to a quiet space, and try the following strategies:

  • Speak calmly and soothingly, reminding them they are safe and not alone. 

  • Narrate taking deep breaths, breathing in and out for three seconds each. "In, two three. Out, two, three." This strategy can help them focus on their breathing. 

  • Remind them that this is a real symptom and will pass soon.  

  • Avoid showing or validating negative statements. 

  • Try initiating a lighthearted conversation about something positive to offer distraction. 

  • Avoid telling them to calm down or devaluing their experience. 

  • Stay with them. If they request time alone, retreat but stay in contact or nearby.  

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When To Reach Out For Help

If your panic attacks occur frequently or significantly interfere with your functional ability in several aspects of your daily life, it may be beneficial to contact a medical or mental health professional for help. If you face barriers to traditional treatment, like social anxiety, you can also work with a provider online. 

Through an online platform like BetterHelp, you can connect with a therapist through phone, video, or chat sessions. In addition, some platforms offer the option of messaging your therapist throughout the week as needed for advice and support. If you are having a panic attack, contacting your therapist may be quicker online. 

According to a recent study, online therapy offers effective results as a treatment for panic attacks and other anxiety challenges. The study participants reported high satisfaction with virtual treatment, and many participants saw fewer symptoms. 


Panic attacks can cause severe emotional distress and disruption to your daily life. Understanding the symptoms of these events and knowing how to prevent them can be crucial. If you live with frequent panic attacks or want personalized advice, consider contacting a licensed therapist for further guidance.

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