People with panic disorder have sudden and repeated attacks of fear that last for several minutes or longer. These are called panic attacks. Panic attacks are characterized by a fear of disaster or of losing control even when there is no real danger. A person may also have a strong physical reaction during a panic attack. It may feel like having a heart attack. Panic attacks can occur at any time, and many people with panic disorder worry about and dread the possibility of having another attack.
Yes, panic attacks are real and potentially quite emotionally disabling. Fortunately, they can be controlled with specific treatments. Because of the disturbing physical signs and symptoms that accompany panic attacks, they may be mistaken for heart attacks or some other life-threatening medical problem. In fact, up to 25% of people who visit emergency rooms because of chest pain are actually experiencing panic. This can lead to people with this symptom often undergoing extensive medical testing to rule out physical conditions. Sadly, sometimes more than 90% of these individuals are not appropriately diagnosed as suffering from panic.
Some of these symptoms will most likely be present in a panic attack. The attacks can be so disabling that the person is unable to express to others what is happening to them. A doctor might also note various signs of panic: The person may appear to be very afraid or shaky or be hyperventilating (deep, rapid breathing that causes dizziness). Anxiety attacks that take place while sleeping, also called nocturnal panic attacks, occur less often than do panic attacks during the daytime, but affect a large percentage of people who suffer from daytime panic attacks. Individuals with nocturnal panic attacks tend to have more respiratory symptoms associated with panic and have more symptoms of depression and of other psychiatric disorders compared to people who do not have panic attacks at night. Nocturnal panic attacks tend to result in sufferers waking suddenly from sleep in a state of sudden fright or dread for no known reason. As opposed to people with sleep apnea and other sleep disorders, sufferers of nocturnal panic can have all the other symptoms of a panic attack. Although nocturnal panic attacks usually last no more than 10 minutes, it can take much longer for the person to fully recover from the episode.
Without treatment, panic attacks tend to occur repeatedly for months or years. While they typically begin in young adulthood, the symptoms may arise earlier or later in life in some people. Complications, which are symptoms that can develop as a result of continued panic attacks and develop into other mental illnesses, may include specific irrational fears (phobias), especially of leaving home (agoraphobia) and avoidance of social situations. Other possible complications can include depression, work or school problems, suicidal thoughts or actions, financial problems, and alcohol or other substance abuse. For children and adolescents, panic disorder can even interfere with normal development. Panic disorder and other anxiety disorders also predispose sufferers to developing heart or gastrointestinal diseases, high blood pressure or diabetes, having more severe symptoms if they have a respiratory disease, and of dying prematurely.
Primarily, it is important to stay calm, patient, and understanding. Help your friend wait out the panic attack by encouraging them to take deep breaths in for four seconds and out for four seconds. Stay with them and assure them that this attack is only temporary and they will get through it. You can also remind them that they can leave the environment they are in if they would feel more comfortable elsewhere and try to engage them in light-hearted conversation.
Connect with others. Loneliness and isolation can trigger or worsen anxiety, while talking about your worries face to face can often make them seem less overwhelming. Make it a point to regularly meet up with friends, join a self-help or support group, or share your worries and concerns with a trusted loved one. If you don’t have anyone you can reach out to, it’s never too late to build new friendships and a support network.
People with panic disorder often worry about when the next attack will happen and actively try to prevent future attacks by avoiding places, situations, or behaviors they associate with panic attacks. Worry about panic attacks, and the effort spent trying to avoid attacks, cause significant problems in various areas of the person’s life, including the development of agoraphobia (see below).