Panic is a sense of overwhelming fear, triggering physical and mental reactions so severe that a person might believe he is dying. Symptoms include palpitations, pounding fast heart beat, shaking, sweating, choking, dizziness, rapid breathing, and tight chest.
The cause of the panic can be real, or imaginary. Unless you are a vulcan, you have experienced panic at some point in your life. For instance,
- After stumbling upon a lone bear cub in the woods, the mama spies you, goes berserker and charges.
- You run out of gas late at night during a blizzard. Oh yeah, and you’re on the Interstate and the next exit is 50 miles away.
- While hiking in the mountains you suddenly hear a distinct rattling sound.
- You are about to give a speech to a packed auditorium.
- It is your turn to audition in front of the judges of American idol.
- You speed by a well hidden police car. He immediately pulls out lights on, siren blaring
- You wake up and remember your anniversary was yesterday.
In those circumstances, your panic is normal, it is not pathological and you will quickly return to a normal state once the stressor passes or the situation is dealt with. If however you experience recurrent episodes of panic, often for no apparent reason, you may have a panic disorder. Here are some descriptions of what people feel during an attack:
I start shaking, I find it hard to breathe and my eyes go all funny. eveything seems to be so sereal.
My heart beats against my chest and it feels like it’s going to break out, I get stomach pains, trembling, noise seems amplified, and I freak out. The world is swirling, I get confused, my mouth goes dry and I can’t breath. I am sure I am about to die.
I see spots and my vision gets blurry. I think that I’m going insane, it’s like I am on a bad acid trip.
In his book, The Loss of Sadness, Dr Kenneth Kendler writes:
If an individual experiences a full-blown panic attack when . . . he looses his grip and falls 40 feet before his rope catches him . . . no psychiatrist I know would consider this to be a psychopathological phenomenon. A panic attack is not—in and of itself—psychopathological. It only becomes pathology when it occurs in certain contexts—at times and in places when it should not.
One panic attack, not a problem. A couple more here and there, still can be dealt with. If your panic is starting to interfere with your lifestyle or work, then you need to see your doctor. There are medical conditions that can mimic a panic disorder, and you should have those ruled out. Also, it is safer to err on the side of caution. If you feel you are having a heart attack, call 911. Chest pain or tightness should always be taken seriously.
The good news: through a combination of medications and good cognitive therapy, you don’t have to be a victim of panic. Don’t be ashamed or afraid to seek help – it is more common that you probably know, and don’t think it can’t be treated, because it can.
For more information check out the Mayo Clinic page on panic disorder.