Panic attacks, also known as anxiety attacks, are described as sudden episodes of extreme and disabling fear that last shortly. Most commonly, a panic attack will reach its peak within half an hour, and then gradually subside during the next couple of hours. Sufferers usually describe this feeling as one of the most frightening experiences. These sudden attacks of fear and nervousness are normally accompanied with a lot of physical symptoms. The sufferers often describe it as intensively upsetting fear they are going to die, have a heart attack or a nervous breakdown. Over time, most of the people experiencing panic attacks will develop a constant fear of having another one, which can be extremely disabling.
Symptoms of panic attack
The first and most pronounced symptom of panic attack is an overwhelming fear. Sufferers often feel like they are losing a control over themselves or going crazy. In most of the cases, the attack starts by feeling faint or nauseated with slight vertigo and light-headedness. Often the heart rate is severely increased and the patients report feeling of chest pain or tightness in the chest area. Sometimes they will sweat a lot, or have cold sweaty palms. Burning sensation in the face and the neck is also common and, like all other symptoms, develops in a response to excessive production of hormones. Sufferers will probably have changes in the breathing pattern. Some of them will hyperventilate during the panic attack, while the others will hold their breath to prevent the sensations of choking and smothering. For all of them, the feeling of derealization accompanied with difficulty moving, is common.
Sometimes, the sufferer may suffer from tunnel vision that occurs as a result of blood flow leaving the head. This is the loss of peripheral vision with retention of central vision, resulting in a constricted circular tunnel-like field of vision. Panic attacks are often experienced together with anxiety disorders and other psychological conditions, but also completely healthy individuals can have them occasionally.
Understanding panic attacks
Panic attack results as a consequence of fight-or-flight response, which is a reaction to threats with a general discharge of the sympathetic nervous system. This is an inner defense mechanism, common for all humans and animals. The stress response normally triggers the body either to escape or to fight with the stressor. In a natural state, that would be something that threatens our life. A lot of unmanaged stress can also trigger this response making the body physically and psychologically prepared to face the “enemy”. When the system is activated, almost everything in our environment looks like a possible threat to our survival, because we don’t know what actually triggers the response. Therefore, the person is lost in the feeling of fear and anxiety, without even knowing what to do.