Panic Attacks 


David Prescott, Ph.D.
Eastern Maine Medical Center Behavioral Medicine
Health Watch – April 1, 2014

What Is a Panic Attack? Almost one in four people (22.7%) experience a panic attack at least once in their life. People who experience a panic attack for the first time often think they are going to die. It is not uncommon for someone having a panic attack to call their doctor or go to an emergency room, worried that they are having a heart attack.

The onset of panic attacks usually occurs during teenage or early adult years. Symptoms of a panic attack include:

• Sudden onset of intense fear and anxiety.
• Feeling like you are going to die or have a heart attack.
• Racing, pounding, or skipping heartbeat
• Difficulty catching your breath
• Choking sensation or lump in your throat
• Excessive sweating
• Shaking or trembling
• Feelings of unreality, or being detached from your body

Why do Panic Attacks Occur? Most experts agree that panic attacks occur when the body’s fear response (sometimes called “fight or flight”) is set into motion. Once this response is triggered it mobilizes your protective resources as if you were going to have to fight for your life. Many different types of events can trigger a panic attack, such as riding in a car, hearing an argument, or apprehension about meeting a new person.

Preventing Panic Attacks – Identifying the Triggering Event: Preventing a first panic attack is difficult, since people usually do not know they are coming. However, there are several strategies for preventing future panic attacks.

In almost all cases, there is some triggering event to a panic attack. The events may be easily identified, such as riding in a car; or more general, such as worrying about what your future might hold. But in almost all cases, identifying the triggering event is the first step towards avoiding a panic attack.

What can I do if I have a Panic Attack? Even though panic attacks are intense and terrifying, they do subside and eventually go away. The first time a person has a panic attack they may not know quite what is happening. If you have had a panic attack before and think another one is developing, remind yourself that the overwhelming feelings and fear will subside. If you are with someone who appears to be having a panic attack, try not to become upset or angry. Telling somebody that the fear is “all in their head” is not usually helpful.
Some things that may help during a panic attack include:

· Tell yourself that this is a panic attack and that you will live through it.
· Try to slow down your breathing, perhaps counting slowly to ten between breaths, doing this over and over.
· Try to focus on something around you, rather than inside you.
· If you are with someone you trust, focus on their voice or presence.

Treatment for Panic Disorder: Both counseling and medication are effective treatment for panic disorder. Counseling usually focuses on

· Identifying events, thoughts, or situations which trigger panic attacks.
· Changing certain patterns of “self-talk” which increase anxiety.
· Learning a physical relaxation response

For certain people, medications may help reduce or eliminate panic disorder. Types of medications that may be prescribed include anti-anxiety medications, or a class of antidepressant medications called SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors).

About 70-90% of people who receive treatment for panic disorder improve relatively quickly. If you think you may have panic disorder, talk to a mental health professional like a psychologist or psychiatrist, or you can ask your family doctor.
For More Information:

American Psychological Association: <>

National Institute of Mental health: <>