A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Panic attacks: You’re not dying, but talk to your doctor

Panic Attack Hyperventilation 7-28 inside

A panic attack can make you feel like you’re losing control or dying for 10-20 minutes.

Panic attacks can make you feel like you’re dying.

They cause alarming symptoms, including:

  • Chest pain or tightness
  • Increased heart rate
  • Shortness of breath or hyperventilating
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Feeling disconnected from reality

“It’s not uncommon for someone having a panic attack to come to the emergency department because they think they are having a heart attack,” said Dr. Justin Schoen, a Marshfield Clinic psychiatrist.

The symptoms usually end in 10-20 minutes, but even a short episode can be a terrifying experience.

It’s not clear what causes panic attacks

Panic attacks during stressful situations happen because the body’s fight or flight response is in overdrive. The neurotransmitter norepinephrine speeds up breathing and heart rate to a level that makes you feel like you’re losing control or dying.

It’s not exactly clear what causes panic disorder, or spontaneous panic attacks that make it difficult to function.

“There are several theories about the hormones and neurotransmitters that are involved, but the specific pathophysiology that causes panic disorder hasn’t been identified,” Schoen said.

Seek help for panic disorder

An isolated panic attack that you can connect to a stressful life event probably isn’t a serious problem.

Get help for panic attacks that happen for no reason or that interrupt your daily life. Panic attacks that wake you up in the middle of the night, make you lose sleep, affect school and work or cause you to avoid social situations suggest panic disorder.

“Panic disorder means your body is firing on all cylinders when it doesn’t need to be and you cannot control it,” Schoen said.

It causes people to avoid situations where they’ve had panic attacks before and activities like exercise that increase heart rate similar to a panic attack.

Cognitive behavioral therapy, medication and breathing exercises like counting to a set number as you slowly breathe in and out can help you get through a panic attack. Contrary to the age-old advice, breathing into a paper bag isn’t the best remedy.

Let family and friends know you have panic attacks and ask them to reassure you the symptoms will pass and you’re not dying.

Don’t dismiss heart and lung problems

You should take panic attack symptoms seriously if you have heart problems or asthma.

“The symptoms can be similar, so health care providers err on the side of caution when telling people with these conditions to seek medical attention,” Schoen said. “We don’t want to tell someone they’re having a panic attack when they’re actually having a heart attack.”

Talk to your doctor if you think you’re having panic attacks. The right diagnosis and treatment are important when it comes to heart and lung symptoms.

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