Understanding Panic Attacks: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment in 2024

Whether you’ve experienced one yourself or know someone who has, panic attacks can be a truly overwhelming and terrifying experience. Feeling suddenly consumed by intense fear and apprehension, accompanied by physical symptoms like rapid heartbeat and shortness of breath, panic attacks can feel completely debilitating. But fear not, because in this article “Understanding Panic Attacks: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment”, we’ll take a closer look at the causes, symptoms, and treatments for panic attacks, providing you with a greater understanding and equipping you with the tools to navigate through them. So hold on tight as we explore the world of panic attacks together.

Table of Contents

Causes of Panic Attacks


Panic attacks can be caused by genetic factors, meaning that they can run in families. If you have a close family member who experiences panic attacks, you may have a higher chance of developing them yourself. Researchers believe that certain genes play a role in regulating the brain’s response to fear and stress, which can contribute to the development of panic attacks.

Brain chemistry

Imbalances in brain chemicals, such as serotonin and norepinephrine, can contribute to the onset of panic attacks. These neurotransmitters are responsible for regulating mood and anxiety. When an imbalance occurs, it can lead to heightened anxiety and the development of panic attacks.

Environmental factors

Environmental factors can also contribute to the development of panic attacks. People who have experienced traumatic events or have been exposed to chronic stress may be more susceptible to panic attacks. Additionally, individuals who have a history of physical or emotional abuse may be at a higher risk.

Major life stressors

Major life stressors, such as divorce, job loss, or the death of a loved one, can trigger panic attacks in susceptible individuals. The stress and emotional turmoil associated with these events can overwhelm a person’s coping mechanisms, leading to the development of panic attacks.

Medical conditions

Certain medical conditions can also increase the risk of panic attacks. For example, individuals with heart disease, thyroid problems, or respiratory conditions may be more prone to experiencing panic attacks. Additionally, some medications or substances, such as caffeine or certain asthma medications, can trigger panic attacks in susceptible individuals.

Symptoms of Panic Attacks

Sudden and intense fear

People experiencing a panic attack often describe a sudden and overwhelming sense of fear or impending doom. This intense feeling may come out of nowhere or may be triggered by a specific situation or event.

Rapid heartbeat and chest pain

During a panic attack, you may experience a rapid heartbeat or pounding heart, along with chest pain or discomfort. These sensations can be very distressing and can mimic the symptoms of a heart attack.

Shortness of breath

Feeling as if you can’t catch your breath or are struggling to breathe is a common symptom of panic attacks. This sensation can be accompanied by a sense of smothering or choking.

Dizziness and lightheadedness

Panic attacks can cause dizziness or lightheadedness, making it difficult to maintain balance or feel steady on your feet.

Nausea or stomach discomfort

Many people experiencing a panic attack report feeling nauseous or having an upset stomach. This can contribute to a sense of unease and discomfort.

Trembling or shaking

Trembling or shaking is a physical symptom commonly associated with panic attacks. This can affect your ability to perform tasks or engage in daily activities.


Excessive sweating, even if the environment is not particularly warm, is a common symptom of panic attacks. This can lead to feelings of discomfort and embarrassment.

Feeling of unreality or detachment

During a panic attack, some individuals may experience a sense of detachment from themselves or their surroundings. This can be distressing and may contribute to a fear of losing control or going crazy.

Fear of losing control or going crazy

One of the hallmark symptoms of panic attacks is a fear of losing control or going crazy. This intense fear can exacerbate the panic attack and make it more difficult to manage.

Fear of dying

Many people experiencing a panic attack report a fear of dying or fear that they are having a heart attack. These fears can further escalate the panic attack and contribute to feelings of distress.

Understanding Panic Attacks: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Diagnosis of Panic Attacks

Physical examination

To diagnose panic attacks, a healthcare professional will typically start with a physical examination. This is done to rule out any underlying medical conditions that may be causing or contributing to the symptoms experienced during a panic attack.

Psychological evaluation

A psychological evaluation will usually be conducted to assess your emotional state and overall mental health. This evaluation may include questions about your symptoms, triggers, and general emotional well-being.

Diagnostic criteria from DSM-5

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) is often used to diagnose mental health conditions, including panic attacks. The criteria outlined in the DSM-5 help healthcare professionals determine if your symptoms meet the criteria for a panic attack.

Rule out other medical conditions

To ensure an accurate diagnosis, it is important to rule out any other medical conditions that may mimic the symptoms of a panic attack. This may involve further medical tests or consultations with specialists.

Treatment for Panic Attacks


Therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), is a common treatment for panic attacks. CBT helps individuals identify and change negative thought patterns and behaviors that contribute to panic attacks. It also teaches effective coping strategies to manage anxiety.


Medications can be prescribed to help manage the symptoms of panic attacks. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are often used and are effective in reducing the frequency and severity of panic attacks. Benzodiazepines may also be prescribed for short-term relief but are typically used with caution due to their potential for dependence.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT is a type of therapy that focuses on identifying and changing negative thought patterns and behaviors. It can help individuals with panic attacks develop more adaptive coping strategies and reduce their overall anxiety.

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)

SSRIs are a class of antidepressant medications that can be effective in treating panic attacks. These medications work by increasing the levels of serotonin in the brain, which can help regulate mood and reduce anxiety.

Lifestyle changes

Making lifestyle changes can also be helpful in managing panic attacks. These may include reducing caffeine intake, practicing regular exercise, getting enough sleep, and incorporating stress management techniques into daily life.

Understanding Panic Attacks: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Self-Help Techniques

Deep breathing exercises

Deep breathing exercises can help regulate your breathing during a panic attack and promote a sense of calm. Taking slow, deep breaths can activate the body’s relaxation response and help reduce anxiety.

Progressive muscle relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation involves tensing and then relaxing different muscle groups in the body. This technique can help reduce muscle tension and promote a sense of overall relaxation.

Mindfulness and meditation

Practicing mindfulness and meditation can help individuals with panic attacks become more aware of their thoughts and feelings in the present moment. This can reduce anxiety and provide a greater sense of control over panic attack symptoms.

Regular exercise

Engaging in regular exercise can help reduce overall anxiety and stress levels. Exercise releases endorphins, which are natural mood boosters. It can also provide a distraction from anxious thoughts and promote a sense of well-being.

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle

Adopting a healthy lifestyle can have a positive impact on both physical and mental well-being. This includes eating a balanced diet, getting enough sleep, and avoiding excessive alcohol or drug use.

Coping Strategies for Panic Attacks

Recognizing triggers

Identifying and recognizing triggers that may lead to panic attacks is an important part of managing them. This can involve keeping a journal of panic attack episodes to identify patterns or common factors that contribute to their onset.

Developing a safety plan

Creating a safety plan can help individuals cope with panic attacks when they occur. This plan may involve identifying calming techniques, emergency contacts, and strategies for managing panic attack symptoms in various settings.

Practicing positive self-talk

Positive self-talk involves consciously replacing negative or fearful thoughts with more positive and affirming statements. This can help individuals challenge negative beliefs about panic attacks and reduce anxiety.

Seeking social support

Having a strong support system can make a significant difference in coping with panic attacks. Sharing your experiences with trusted friends or family members can provide understanding, encouragement, and a sense of validation.

Learning relaxation techniques

Learning and practicing relaxation techniques can help individuals manage anxiety and prevent panic attacks. Techniques such as deep breathing, visualization, or guided imagery can promote feelings of relaxation and calm.

Understanding Panic Attacks: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Preventing Panic Attacks

Stress management

Effective stress management is crucial in preventing panic attacks. This may involve identifying stressors in your life and developing healthy coping strategies, such as time management, establishing boundaries, or practicing relaxation techniques.

Avoiding substance abuse

Substance abuse can exacerbate anxiety and increase the likelihood of panic attacks. Avoiding or reducing the use of substances such as caffeine, alcohol, or nicotine can help prevent panic attacks.

Getting enough sleep

Adequate sleep is essential for maintaining emotional well-being and overall mental health. A lack of sleep can increase anxiety and make individuals more vulnerable to experiencing panic attacks.

Regular exercise

Engaging in regular physical activity can help reduce anxiety and promote a more positive mood. Exercise releases endorphins, which are natural mood-boosting chemicals that can help prevent panic attacks.

Engaging in enjoyable activities

Participating in activities that you enjoy can help reduce stress and improve overall well-being. Engaging in hobbies, spending time with loved ones, or pursuing creative outlets can serve as a form of self-care and prevent panic attacks.

Impact of Panic Attacks on Daily Life

Work and productivity

Panic attacks can significantly impact work and productivity. The sudden onset of panic attack symptoms can interfere with concentration, decision-making, and the ability to perform tasks effectively.

Interpersonal relationships

Panic attacks may strain interpersonal relationships, as individuals may withdraw or avoid social situations due to fears of experiencing panic attacks. This can lead to feelings of isolation or increased conflict within relationships.

Quality of life

The debilitating nature of panic attacks can have a profound impact on an individual’s overall quality of life. It can limit their ability to participate in activities they enjoy and lead to feelings of fear, helplessness, or depression.

Emotional well-being

Repeated panic attacks can take a toll on emotional well-being, contributing to increased anxiety, depression, or feelings of hopelessness. It is important to seek support and treatment to address these emotional consequences.

When to Seek Professional Help

Frequent and severe panic attacks

If you are experiencing frequent and severe panic attacks, it is important to seek professional help. This may indicate the need for comprehensive treatment to manage symptoms and prevent further distress.

Interference with daily activities

If panic attacks are interfering with your ability to perform daily activities, such as going to work, attending school, or engaging in social events, professional help should be sought. Intervention can help you regain control and improve functioning.

Co-occurring mental health conditions

If you have a co-occurring mental health condition, such as depression or anxiety disorders, seeking professional help is crucial. Comprehensive treatment can address both conditions simultaneously and improve overall well-being.

Suicidal thoughts

If you are experiencing thoughts of self-harm or suicide, it is essential to seek immediate professional help. Reach out to a mental health professional or a helpline to ensure your safety and receive the support you need.

Inability to manage symptoms

If you are unable to effectively manage or cope with your panic attack symptoms on your own, seeking professional help is recommended. Mental health professionals can provide guidance and support tailored to your specific needs.

Supporting Someone with Panic Attacks

Understanding their experience

It is important to strive to understand and empathize with the experience of someone who has panic attacks. Educate yourself about panic attacks and ask them to share their thoughts and feelings openly, without judgment.

Offering non-judgmental support

Being non-judgmental and supportive is crucial when someone you know is experiencing panic attacks. Offer them a safe space to talk and lend a listening ear without offering unsolicited advice or criticism.

Encouraging professional help

Encourage your loved one to seek professional help if they haven’t already done so. Offer to help them find a qualified therapist or healthcare provider who specializes in the treatment of panic attacks.

Assisting with coping strategies

Offer to assist your loved one in practicing coping strategies, such as deep breathing exercises or progressive muscle relaxation. You can do these techniques together or remind them to use them when they’re feeling anxious.

Promoting self-care: Understanding Panic Attacks

Encourage your loved one to prioritize self-care. This can include engaging in activities they enjoy, practicing relaxation techniques, and taking breaks when needed. Remind them that self-care is essential for managing panic attacks and overall well-being.

By understanding the causes, symptoms and treatment options for panic attacks, you can better navigate this challenging condition. With the right support and resources, it is possible to effectively manage and overcome panic attacks, leading to a healthier and more fulfilling life. Remember, seeking help is a sign of strength, and there are numerous resources available to assist you in your journey towards well-being.

Frequently Asked Questions:

1. What are the causes of panic attacks?

  • Panic attacks can be triggered by various factors, including stress, trauma, genetics, and neurological imbalances.

2. What is the difference between a panic attack and an anxiety attack?

  • While both involve intense fear, panic attacks are sudden and peak rapidly, often with physical symptoms, while anxiety attacks are more prolonged and may have identifiable stressors.

3. Is it OK to have panic attacks every day?

  • Experiencing daily panic attacks can significantly impact well-being, and seeking professional help is advisable for effective management.

4. How do you break the cycle of a panic attack?

  • Breaking the cycle involves practicing grounding techniques, deep breathing, and cognitive restructuring to interrupt the heightened anxiety response.

5. Do panic attacks start for no reason?

  • Panic attacks can seemingly occur without an apparent cause, but identifying triggers and stressors can aid in managing and preventing future episodes.

6. Are panic attacks a mental illness?

  • Panic attacks are a symptom commonly associated with panic disorder, a type of anxiety disorder. Seeking professional evaluation is crucial for accurate diagnosis and treatment.

7. How to calm a panic attack?

  • Calming techniques include deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and focusing on grounding exercises. Seeking a quiet, safe space can also be beneficial.

8. How do you stop a panic attack fast?

  • Quick intervention involves deep breathing, positive self-talk, and grounding techniques. Establishing a calming routine can help prevent future attacks.

9. What is a silent panic attack?

  • Silent panic attacks may lack the typical outward signs but still involve intense fear and physiological symptoms. Internal distress can be just as overwhelming.

10. Do panic attacks ever go away? – With proper treatment and coping strategies, panic attacks can become less frequent and less intense. Seeking professional help enhances the likelihood of long-term relief.

11. What are 5 signs of panic disorder? – Frequent panic attacks, fear of future attacks, avoidance behaviors, physical symptoms like chest pain or dizziness, and significant life disruption are signs of panic disorder.

12. Can panic disorder be cured? – While a complete cure is not guaranteed, effective treatment, including therapy and medication, can significantly reduce symptoms and improve quality of life.

13. What is the 333 rule for panic attacks? – The 333 rule involves naming three things you see, hear, and feel, helping ground yourself during a panic attack and break the cycle of escalating anxiety.

14. How to trick your brain during a panic attack? – Distraction techniques, positive affirmations, and reframing negative thoughts can help redirect the brain’s focus during a panic attack.

15. What is the 5 rule for panic attacks? – The 5 rule involves acknowledging five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one positive thought.

16. Can your mind create symptoms? – The mind can influence physical symptoms, and heightened anxiety or panic can manifest as real, intense sensations. Professional guidance can help understand and manage these symptoms.

17. Why do panic attacks feel so real? – The intense physical and emotional sensations during panic attacks can feel real due to the body’s stress response. Recognizing this and practicing coping techniques can help manage the experience.

18. Can anxiety cause weird symptoms? – Anxiety can manifest in a variety of physical symptoms, ranging from dizziness and chest pain to tingling sensations. Understanding the connection between anxiety and these symptoms is crucial for effective management.

19. Are panic attacks all in your mind? – While panic attacks originate from the mind’s response to stress, the physical symptoms and emotional distress are very real. Treating both the mental and physical aspects is essential.

20. Are panic attacks a form of depression? – Panic attacks are associated with anxiety disorders rather than depression. However, comorbidity can exist, and seeking professional evaluation helps determine the most accurate diagnosis.

21. Are panic attacks PTSD? – Panic attacks can be a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), especially when triggered by trauma. Seeking a comprehensive evaluation is crucial for proper diagnosis and treatment.

22. Do you cry during a panic attack? – Emotional responses during panic attacks vary, and crying can be a common expression of overwhelming fear or distress.

23. Should you touch someone having a panic attack? – Always ask for permission before offering physical comfort. Some individuals may find touch reassuring, while others may prefer space during a panic attack.

24. What not to do when someone is having a panic attack? – Avoid minimizing their experience, pressuring them to calm down, or suggesting that it’s “all in their head.” Instead, offer support and encourage them to use coping strategies.

25. Does drinking water help a panic attack? – While staying hydrated is important, drinking water may not directly alleviate a panic attack. However, maintaining overall health through hydration is beneficial for well-being.

26. Do showers help panic attacks? – A warm shower can provide a calming effect for some individuals during a panic attack. The sensation of water can be grounding and soothing. Experimenting with different coping strategies helps identify what works best for each person.

Source: Panic Attacks