Panic Attack: Signs, Symptoms, Panic Disorder and Agoraphobia

A panic attack is a sudden surge of overwhelming fear and anxiety, usually without any clear reason and without warning. It can happen to anyone regardless of age, health and status. Many attacks are a one-time occurrence, but some people experience recurring episodes. Recurring episodes are often caused by a “trigger” – like speaking in front of a crowd or doing a presentation at work. Panic attacks may be a part of another disorder such as depression, panic disorder, or social phobia. These, however, are generally harmless, but sufferers still feel that their life is in danger. Either way, panic attacks are treatable.

Signs and Symptoms

A panic attack can happen anytime, but it usually happens when you are away from home. You may be at a store shopping, at work preparing for a presentation, in a class, driving, walking down the street or even during asleep.

The signs and symptoms develop quickly and usually arrive at its peak in 10 minutes. The majority of panic attacks do not last for more than 30 minutes and it rarely lasts for more than an hour.

A person during an attack shows these signs and symptoms:

• Increased heartbeat or palpitation
• Chest pain
• Hyperventilation or shortness of breath
• Stomach churning, upset stomach
• Trembling and shaking
• Muscle tension
• Sweating
• Dizziness and light-headedness
• Hot or cold flashes
• Tingling sensation or numbness
• Fear of dying, going crazy or losing control
• Feeling detached from the surroundings

Panic Disorder

A panic attack may happen just once without any problem or complication. And there is almost no reason to be concerned if you have one or two episodes. But those who have experienced several episodes usually develop panic disorder.

Recurring panic attacks along with persistent anxiety for future attacks and major changes in behavior can be considered as panic disorder. There are two symptoms of panic disorder: (1) phobic avoidance and (2) anticipatory anxiety.

Phobic avoidance – When you begin to avoid certain things or situations based on the belief that it would trigger another attack. It can also be avoiding situations that have caused the previous attack. You may also avoid places or situations where escape is difficult and help is unavailable, like riding an elevator or an airplane. Extreme case of phobic avoidance may lead to agoraphobia.

Anticipatory anxiety – The “fear of fear” or the fear of having future panic attacks. The person manifesting this symptom is usually tensed and anxious. When ignored, the condition can be disabling.

Panic disorder with agoraphobia

Agoraphobia is traditionally believed as fear of open places or public places, thus, it literally means “fear of the marketplace.” However, now it is believed that agoraphobia is fear of experiencing panic attack in a place where help is difficult or where escape would be difficult.

People with agoraphobia tend to avoid the following situations or activities:

• Being away from home

• Driving

• Confined places where there is a possibility of being trapped (elevator, theaters, public transportation, stores)

• Going out with “unsafe” person or someone he or she is not comfortable being with.

• Places where it would be embarrassing to have a panic attack like parties and other social gatherings.

In severe cases, people with agoraphobia see their home as the only safe place.