What is a Panic Attack?

What is a Panic Attack?

A panic attack is an unforgettable experience.  It’s a sudden, overwhelming surge of intense fear and dread, with terrifying thoughts and sensations.  The thoughts can include fears of dying, going crazy or losing control; the sensations can include a racing heart, dizziness, sweating, shortness of breath, trembling, feeling faint, numbness and choking.  A panic attack usually lasts only a few minutes, but, needless to say, it seems much longer!

Panic attacks are very common.  About one out of three adults has experienced at least one.  As unpleasant as it may be, an occasional panic attack can simply be part of the human experience and does not constitute an anxiety disorder.

Panic attacks are related to the “fight-or-flight” response that all of us have and that has been key to our survival as a species.  In prehistoric times, when a saber-toothed tiger or neighboring cannibal tribe wanted to have us for dinner, the fight-or-flight response kicked in.  Instantly, we would have superhuman strength and speed, to either fight or flee.

Today, the stresses we face are very different from what they were in prehistoric times.  Sometimes, our fight-or-flight response gets triggered when there is no actual threat to our survival.  With no external, life-threatening danger to focus on, bodily sensations and scary thoughts can spiral into a panic attack.

Panic attacks are an amazing paradox.  For millions, they are the most terrifying, traumatic and painful experiences in their lives.  And yet, they are completely harmless. 

A good analogy for a panic attack is a fire alarm set off by mistake.  It’s loud, scary and very unpleasant, but the alarm itself is never dangerous.  In fact, the fire alarm insures our protection and survival in the event of an actual fire.

The fight-or-flight response is designed to insure our protection and survival in the event of a real emergency, when a split-second reaction could mean the difference between life and death.  When the fight-or-flight response gets set off by false alarm  and a panic attack ensues, the result is a lot of noise and fear, but no actual danger.