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 Medical Self-Care: Panic Attacks 
American Institute for Preventive Medicine ©

Anxiety & Panic Attacks

Anxiety is a feeling of dread, fear, or distress. This can be from a real threat or one that exists in the mind. A panic attack is a brief period of acute anxiety that comes on all of a sudden. It occurs when there is no real danger. It comes without warning.

Signs & Symptoms

  • Rapid pulse and/or breathing rate. Racing or pounding heart.
  • Dry mouth. Sweating. Trembling.
  • Shortness of breath. Faintness.
  • Numbness and tingling of the hands, feet, or other body part.
  • Feeling of a "lump in the throat."
  • Stomach problems.
  • Sleep problems.
  • Persons having a panic attack may rush to an emergency room. Why? They think they are having a heart attack. They feel like they are going crazy or going to die.

    Persons who have repeated panic attacks begin to avoid places they link with past attacks. If the person had the panic attack in a grocery store and had to leave the store to feel safe, the person avoids going to the grocery store. This can lead to a phobia called agoraphobia.

    A person who has 4 or more panic attacks in any 4 week period could have panic disorder. The disorder can also be present if the person has less than 4 panic attacks in 4 weeks, but fears having another one.


    Some anxiety is normal. It can alert you to seek safety from physical danger. Anxiety is not normal, though, when it overwhelms you and interferes with day-to-day life. Anxiety can be a symptom of many conditions. These include:

  • Having too much caffeine. Withdrawal reaction from nicotine, alcohol, caffeine, drugs, or medicines, such as sleeping pills.
  • A side effect of some medicines.
  • Low blood sugar.
  • An overactive thyroid gland.
  • Cushing's Syndrome. With this, the glands above the kidneys called the adrenal glands, make too much of a hormone.
  • A heart attack.

  • Anxiety can also be a symptom of illnesses known as anxiety disorders. These include:

  • Phobias.
  • Panic disorder.
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). With this, a person has persistent, involuntary thoughts or images (obsessions). The person also does ritualistic acts, such as washing the hands, according to certain self-imposed rules (compulsions).
  • Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
  • A panic attack lasts only a few minutes, but seems to last for hours.


    Anxiety disorders are common problems. They often respond to treatment.

    When anxiety is mild and/or does not interfere with daily living, it can be dealt with using self-care measures. Treatment also includes:

  • Treating any medical condition which causes the anxiety or panic attacks.
  • Medication.
  • Counseling.
  • Self-help groups for anxiety disorders.
  • Psychological counseling is one method of treatment for anxiety.

    Questions to Ask

    With anxiety, do you have any of these problems?

  • Any heart attack warning sign.
  • Extreme shortness of breath without chest pain.
  • Feeling lightheaded. Passing out.
  • Suicide attempts or plans.
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