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Definition of Panic Attack

Updated on January 30, 2015
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JohnMello is a writer, composer, musician and the author of books for children and adults.


Look in any good dictionary and you'll find a definition of panic something like this:


a sudden overwhelming fear, with or without cause, that produces hysterical or irrational behavior; suddenly destroying the self-control and impelling to some frantic action.

That's good, as far as it goes... but it's only a definition of a word. It doesn't specify how panic attacks will affect YOU. Everybody's unique, so their experience of panic and the sensations it arouses will also be unique.

The Origins of Panic

Where does the word "panic" come from?

Believe it or not, it comes from the Greek god Pan who used to spend his days roaming the countryside and scaring the life out of herds of sheep and goats. Perhaps he liked the way they scattered when he snuck up behind them. That's amusing, but it doesn't define panic attacks any better. To do that we need to dig a little deeper.

Panic attacks occur due to what we call the "fight-or-flight" response. This is our body's way of protecting us from impending danger. It's what makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up when you walk down a darkened alleyway.

That's a good thing, because it means we can sense the danger and react to it accordingly. We can fight it or we can flee. If the danger is real, this built-in response could save your life. If the danger is imagined, however, it simply serves to heighten your anxiety levels and stress you out big time.

Panic elicits the "fight-or-flight" response
Panic elicits the "fight-or-flight" response | Source

Panic Attack Symptoms

During a panic attack your body will undergo a series of changes, most of which will manifest themselves physically. The threat of danger -- real or imagined -- causes the blood to rush towards your heart and away from your extremities. And because you might need it, more adrenalin is produced.

As you can see, as soon as a panic attack begins you're at a disadvantage. Your heart's pounding, you're hyped up to the max and you can't think straight. On top of that, you might also experience some of these symptoms:

  • Sweating – Sweating is the body’s way of cooling itself down before the pending exertion of a fight-or-flight response. A sweaty body is harder to grab hold of, too, making it easier for you to evade potential predators.
  • Shaking – Your body sends out adrenalin to prime your muscles and get you ready for action. People in life-threatening situations are so pumped full of adrenalin that they're able to perform super-human feats. But when you’re suffering a panic attack, there’s no outlet for the adrenalin, so your body shakes in order to release it.
  • Rapid Heartbeat – Any threatening situation will make your heart beat faster. Your body sends blood to your muscles in case you need extra strength. Once the threat is removed, your heart rate will return to normal.
  • Confusion – Panic attacks make it impossible to think clearly. How could you if you're shaking, sweating, and your heart's going at a dime a dozen? You're too wrapped up in what's happening to your body to be able to make sense of anything.When panic sets in, the amygdala shuts down all non-essential brain functions in a bid to protect you from whatever it thinks is out there. It forces you to focus on the threat until the threat is gone, making it difficult to think about anything else.
  • Dizziness – Panic is rooted in fear, and whenever fear rears its ugly hand your breathing changes. It becomes shallow, meaning you won't be taking in enough oxygen. And if there's more adrenalin and less oxygen in your brain, you're going to feel light-headed.
  • Stomach Pains – If there's one time when food won't be on your mind, it's during a panic attack. Your built-in fear response shuts down your digestive system, directing your energy to where it’s needed. This can cause abdominal pain for the duration of the attack.

Dizziness, confusion, and headaches are common during a panic
Dizziness, confusion, and headaches are common during a panic | Source

Panic Attack Survey

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Understanding Panic Attacks

Panic attacks happen automatically when your body senses potential danger. When the fight-or-flight response kicks in it's like your own "spidey sense" is tingling. Unlike Spiderman, however, you're not in control of the situation.

This loss of control is one of the most difficult aspects of panic to deal with. Panic attacks are stressful enough without having to worry about other people's reactions. It can be embarrassing to "lose it" in front of strangers, and sometimes this embarrassment can trigger a new panic attack all on its own.

Panic is linked with fear, and even when that fear is imaginary, it feels real. It's impossible to stay focused, keep calm or think positive in the middle of an attack because you're too worried about the attack itself. All you can think about is what might happen to you: will you faint? Will you have a heart attack? Will you be unable to catch your breath? Are you simply going crazy?

The good news is that people who experience panic attacks are not usually a threat to anyone else. Studies suggest that they don't actually lose control, but the thought that they might lose control heightens their anxiety and can prolong the attacks even further.

Panic attacks can make you feel helpless, isolated and trapped in a world of emotional and physical instability. It's not always easy to ask for help because you don't think anyone else will understand. But having some kind of support system in place could be the very thing that enables you to cope with and eventually eliminate panic attacks from your life for good.

Panic can be a disorienting and frighteneing experience
Panic can be a disorienting and frighteneing experience | Source

How to Manage Panic Attacks

There are many ways to learn how to make panic attacks less frequent, but what can you do when you're in the middle of one? Here is a simple 4-step system that's been proven effective:

  1. Try to relax - calm down and breathe slowly and deeply. Deep breaths relax your body and hold back the secretion of adrenalin.
  2. Think positive - if negative thoughts occur, say STOP in your mind to keep them from taking over.
  3. Turn your thinking around - remind yourself it's only a panic attack, you've had them before, and you're still here to tell the tale.
  4. Accept it for what it is - identify how you feel and what causes you to feel that way. Make a mental note to sort it out before the next panic attack comes along.

About JohnMello

I'm a freelance writer, author, musician and composer. Visit my self help blog at for lots of freebies.

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