What would you think was happening to you if out of nowhere your heart started to race, you were drenched in sweat, you found yourself trembling uncontrollably, short of breath, with chest pain and feeling nauseated, dizzy and lightheaded as though you might faint?
You might also be feeling very cold or very hot, with tingling sensations in your fingers and toes. You might feel removed from the world around you – as though it wasn’t real – and be worried that you might lose control or that you are going insane. You might try to work out what is happening and conclude you are having a heart attack or dying.
A panic attack is a sudden, intense feeling of fear or discomfort with at least four of the signs described above. For some people, a panic attack can come out of nowhere, like a sudden thunderstorm from a clear blue sky. For other people, panic attack may be more predictable, such as an abrupt escalation of a milder anxiety about giving a speech or speaking to someone in authority.
Just as a panic attack can follow an experience of relative calm or of mild anxiety, panic can resolve to a relatively calm state or to ongoing, less intense symptoms. But the symptoms of panic attack are severe and frightening. Many people experiencing a panic attack believe they are seriously ill and seek medical help. (Mia Freedman talks about how she manages her anxiety. Post continues after video.)
What is happening to the body?
Often one of the first symptoms of a panic attack is hyperventilating (rapidly breathing in and out), which upsets the natural balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in our system. One view says a low level of carbon dioxide in the blood directly triggers the symptoms of panic, such as feeling lightheaded and dizzy. When we breathe quickly we also build up oxygen in our blood. Paradoxically, too much oxygen is also associated with feeling short of breath.
Hyperventilation causes many of the other symptoms of a panic attack such as dizziness, blurred vision, tingling, muscle tension, chest pain, heart rate increases, nausea and temperature changes.
People who experience panic misinterpret the bodily signs of hyperventilation as indicating immediate physical danger and believe they have little control over the symptoms. When we then say things to ourselves such as “I might be having a heart attack” and “I can’t cope with this”, the anxiety gets worse.
In a 2013 study, researchers showed when people with no history of panic inhaled air with increased carbon dioxide they reported fear, discomfort and panic symptoms. People with a history of panic attack experience these symptoms at lower concentrations of carbon dioxide, suggesting they are hypersensitive to this internal signal for danger.