What happens, exactly? "We all physically respond to stress," says Barbara O. Rothbaum, PhD, psychiatry professor and director, Trauma and Anxiety Recovery Program, at Atlanta's Emory University School of Medicine. "You might feel anxious about work-related problems, taking a big exam, or making an important decision. But someone who suffers from panic disorder may react to those same moderate pressures with an exaggerated physical reaction-as if he or she were about to be attacked by a wild tiger or fall from a great height. It's full-on, adrenaline-pumping, fight-or-flight response."


This may sound counter-intuitive but trying to accept one's emotional experience can be very helpful during panic attacks. Remind yourself that anxiety is like a wave, what goes up must come down. Fighting against the experience engages the "fear of fear" cycle that can make you feel even worse. If you notice panic symptoms creeping up, label your experience and you remind yourself, "I will be okay. This will pass in time." Accepting your experience, rather than fighting against it, will likely help your panic symptoms reduce more quickly and will feel easier along the way.
Most people have experienced fleeting symptoms associated with anxiety disorders at some point in their life. Such feelings — such as having a shortness of breath, feeling your heart pounding for no apparent reason, experiencing dizziness or tunnel vision — usually pass as quickly as they come and don’t readily return. But when they do return time and time again, that can be a sign that the fleeting feelings of anxiety have turned into an anxiety disorder.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is characterized by uncontrollable anxious thoughts or behaviors. Individuals with OCD are plagued by persistent, unwelcome thoughts and images or by the urgent need to engage in certain rituals. Some OCD sufferers may only have obsessive thoughts without the related rituals. The disturbing thoughts or images (e.g., fear of germs) are called obsessions, and the rituals performed to try to get rid of them (e.g., hand washing) are called compulsions. For example, people who are obsessed with germs may wash their hands excessively. The individual is not happy to be performing the ritual behaviors but finds this to be the only way to get temporary relief from the obsessive thought.
Anxiety disorders reflect disorders that share a general feature of excessive fear (i.e. emotional response to perceived or real threat) and/or anxiety (i.e. anticipation of future threat) and demonstrate behavioral and functional disturbances as a result. Panic attacks are a feature that can occur in the context of many anxiety disorders and reflect a type of fear response.

Heredity, other biological factors, stressful life events, and thinking in a way that exaggerates relatively normal bodily reactions are all believed to play a role in the onset of panic disorder. Some research suggests panic attacks occur when a “suffocation alarm mechanism” in the brain is activated, falsely reporting that death is imminent. The exact cause or causes of panic disorder are unknown and are the subject of intense scientific investigation.


The last strategy — learning what triggers your anxiety — is important. Sometimes you can take small steps to conquer your anxiety instead of letting the trigger conquer you. For example, if meeting new people causes you high anxiety, consider going with a friend to meet the new neighbors. Once you do this with ease, you can move forward and meet people on your own. All the pent-up fear and anxiety attacks will start to resolve as you become accustomed to reaching out in your community.
A first panic attack is usually unexpected, and comes "out of the blue." It may scare you so much that you start taking steps to protect yourself from future attacks. Maybe you start avoiding places that remind you of your first attack. Maybe you only go out after making sure you have your cell phone, a bottle of water, and other objects you hope will keep you safe. Maybe you try hard to "stop thinking about it." You work hard to keep the panic at bay.
Cognitive behavioral therapy has been shown to help with treating panic disorder and agoraphobia. According to a study published in December 2013 in the journal Behaviour Research and Therapy, its effects lasted as long as two years after the initial treatment. And a study published in August 2017 in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology suggested that it may be superior to traditional psychotherapy in the treatment of this condition.

These episodes are a serious health problem in the U.S. At least 20% of adult Americans, or about 60 million people, will suffer from panic at some point in their lives. About 1.7% of adult Americans, or about 3 million people, will have full-blown panic disorder at some time in their lives, women twice as often as men. The most common age at which people have their first panic attack (onset) is between 15 and 19 years of age. Panic attacks are significantly different from other types of anxiety, in that panic attacks are very sudden and often unexpected, appear to be unprovoked, and are often disabling.


The cognitive effects of anxiety may include thoughts about suspected dangers, such as fear of dying. "You may ... fear that the chest pains are a deadly heart attack or that the shooting pains in your head are the result of a tumor or an aneurysm. You feel an intense fear when you think of dying, or you may think of it more often than normal, or can't get it out of your mind."[22]
The buildup phase of a panic attack is the most important phase, because it is when you can prevent it. If you are under chronic stress, you become worn down and have no reserve left. Anything can push you over the edge. But if you regularly reduce your stress through a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy and mind-body relaxation, you will have enough reserve left to handle life’s surprises.
While everyone experiences brief episodes of intense anxiety from time to time, and a great many people experience one or two anxiety attacks over the course of their lifetime, anxiety attack disorder occurs when these attacks become frequent or persistent, begin interfering with or restricting normal lifestyle, or when the individual becomes afraid of them. Once established, anxiety attack disorder can be very debilitating.
Practice relaxation techniques. When practiced regularly, activities such as yoga, meditation, and progressive muscle relaxation strengthen the body’s relaxation response—the opposite of the stress response involved in anxiety and panic. And not only do these relaxation practices promote relaxation, but they also increase feelings of joy and equanimity.
You can learn more about this in the Recovery Support area of our website. Our support area contains a wealth of self-help information on how to treat anxiety disorder, including anxiety attacks. Many find it to be their “one stop” destination for anxiety disorder help. You can click here for more information about our Recovery Support area membership options.

All in a moment that may have lasted hours or seconds, everything came to a halt. The word panic doesn’t seem to reach the sensations I felt during those minutes and hours. My body ached, my insides contracted and felt ice cold, my heart hurt more than any pain I’ve felt. What was worse was the paralyzing, gripping fear—sheer and utter incapacitating fear— that I was leaving so many things undone.
Treatment of anxiety focuses on a two-pronged approach for most people, that focuses on using psychotherapy combined with occasional use of anti-anxiety medications on an as-needed basis. Most types of anxiety can be successfully treated with psychotherapy alone — cognitive-behavioral and behavioral techniques have been shown to be very effective. Anti-anxiety medications tend to be fast-acting and have a short-life, meaning they leave a person’s system fairly quickly (compared to other psychiatric medications, which can take weeks or even months to completely leave).
Over time, many who suffer panic attacks develop an on-going fear of having another attack. This fear can severely hamper daily activities and overall quality of life. Some people refuse to leave their houses or to put themselves in situations that remind them of their previous attacks. Agoraphobia (a fear of being outside of known and safe surroundings) or other mental problems may follow.
But over time, you may find yourself experiencing more panic attacks, in a variety of circumstances. Most of these will not be entirely unexpected. Most subsequent attacks occur in response to various cues such as entering a crowded area; a traffic jam; or simply worrying about having a panic attack. But there may still be some surprises: for instance, you might have a nocturnal panic attack, which wakes you out of a sound sleep. Or you might find yourself experiencing odd feelings of depersonalization as you kill some time with friends or colleagues.
You can learn more about this in the Recovery Support area of our website. Our support area contains a wealth of self-help information on how to treat anxiety disorder, including anxiety attacks. Many find it to be their “one stop” destination for anxiety disorder help. You can click here for more information about our Recovery Support area membership options.
Repeated and persistent thoughts ("obsessions") that typically cause distress and that an individual attempts to alleviate by repeatedly performing specific actions ("compulsions"). Examples of common obsessions include: fear that failing to do things in a particular way will result in harm to self or others, extreme anxiety about being dirty or contaminated by germs, concern about forgetting to do something important that may result in bad outcomes, or obsessions around exactness or symmetry. Examples of common compulsions include: checking (e.g., that the door is locked or for an error), counting or ordering (e.g., money or household items), and performing a mental action (e.g., praying).
Moreover, this hypocapnia and release of adrenaline during a panic attack cause vasoconstriction resulting in slightly less blood flow to the head which causes dizziness and lightheadedness.[28][29] A panic attack can cause blood sugar to be drawn away from the brain and toward the major muscles. Neuroimaging suggests heightened activity in the amygdala, thalamus, hypothalamus, and brainstem regions including the periaqueductal gray, parabrachial nucleus, and Locus coeruleus.[30] In particular, the amygdala has been suggested to have a critical role.[31] The combination of high arousal in the amygdala and brainstem along with decreased blood flow and blood sugar in the brain can lead to dramatically decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex region of the brain.[32] There is evidence that having an anxiety disorder increases the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD).[33] Those affected also have a reduction in heart rate variability.[33]
Some people with anxiety disorders might benefit from joining a self-help or support group and sharing their problems and achievements with others. Internet chat rooms might also be useful, but any advice received over the internet should be used with caution, as Internet acquaintances have usually never seen each other and what has helped one person is not necessarily what is best for another. You should always check with your doctor before following any treatment advice found on the internet. Talking with a trusted friend or member of the clergy can also provide support, but it is not necessarily a sufficient alternative to care from a doctor or other health professional.
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