What is a Panic Attack? - Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Instructor: Yolanda Williams

Yolanda has taught college Psychology and Ethics, and has a doctorate of philosophy in counselor education and supervision.

In this lesson, we will learn about panic attacks, how to recognize the symptoms, the causes, and the treatment options. And please don't panic as we test your knowledge with a short quiz.

Panic Attack Example and Definition

John is an 18-year-old male who is leaving home for the first time. His parents are dropping him off at a college campus that is 600 miles away from his hometown. John's parents help him unload his things, and they share a tearful goodbye. Later that evening while unpacking his clothes, John experiences intense fear. His heart starts to pound, and he begins to choke on air. Sweat starts pouring down John's face, and he is unable to move. John's roommate witnesses this and calls the ambulance. A few minutes after the ambulance arrives, John's symptoms disappear. Still, he is taken to the hospital. Initially, John thought he had a heart attack, but after talking to his doctor John discovered that he had an attack of a different sort. John had just experienced his first ever panic attack.

A panic attack is an abrupt, intense feeling of anxiety and fear. Panic attacks occur out of nowhere and at any time of the day (even if you are sleeping or relaxed). Many people mistake a panic attack for a heart attack (as in John's case), think that they are dying, or think that they are losing their mind. The sense of dread and fear associated with panic attacks is much stronger than one would expect given the situation that the person may be in and does not necessarily have anything to do with what is going on in the person's environment.


John displayed several symptoms of a panic attack. His heart was racing, he had trouble breathing, and he was sweating. Other symptoms of a panic attack include chest pain, hyperventilating, nausea, feeling faint, shaking, feeling numb or tingly, hot or cold flashes, a sense of detachment from your surroundings, and feeling as if you are about to die or are losing your mind. The symptoms associated with panic attacks usually peak within the first 10 minutes, with a majority of panic attacks lasting between 20 to 30 minutes. Panic attacks usually do not last more than an hour.

Sweating is one of the symptoms of a panic attack.


What causes panic attacks is not certain. However, genetics seem to play a role in panic attacks. People with family members who have panic attacks are more likely to have panic attacks. Stressful situations, i.e. a divorce or losing a job, can trigger panic attacks. Major life transitions, including starting college, becoming a parent for the first time, and retirement are related to panic attacks. Certain medical conditions can cause panic attacks. A connection also exists between changes in brain function and increased sensitivity to negative emotions and panic attacks.

Graduation is a major life transition that can trigger a panic attack.

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