Panic attacks are characterised by unexpected and repeated episodes of intense fear which are accompanied by physical symptoms that may include chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness, or abdominal distress. These sensations often mimic symptoms of a heart attack or other life-threatening conditions. As a result, the diagnosis of panic disorder is frequently not made until extensive and costly medical procedures fail to provide a correct diagnosis or relief.
Many people with panic attacks develop intense anxiety between episodes, worrying when and where the next one will strike. Fortunately, through research supported by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), effective treatments have been developed to help people with panic disorder. This treatment can include Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.
The exact cause of panic attaks and the disorder is unknown and is the subject of intense debate and investigation. Possible causes include heredity, other biological factors, stressful life events, and overreacting to normal bodily sensations. Some research suggests panic attacks occur when a “suffocation alarm mechanism” in the brain erroneously fires, falsely reporting that death is imminent.