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Panic Attacks Symptoms and Characteristics

written by: alexisaiger • edited by: Jacqueline Chinappi • updated: 11/24/2010

Characteristics of panic attacks include physical and behavioral symptoms. This article explores the characteristics of panic attacks, outlining physical and behavioral symptoms as well as thought processes typical of individuals suffering from panic attacks.

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    Abrupt Onset of Symptoms

    One of the characteristics of panic attacks is the abrupt onset of panic symptoms. An individual suffering from a panic attack suddenly begins to feel the panic, which usually reaches its highest point in ten minutes and ends 20 to 30 minutes after it begins. There does not appear to be a build up to the panic. Rather, the individual begins to feel the symptoms without warning. These attacks can happen at any time, including in the middle of sleep.

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    Physical Symptoms

    Panic attacks are accompanied by physical symptoms that may resemble serious medical conditions. These physical characteristics of panic attacks include shortness of breath, chest pain, increased heart rate and difficulty breathing. Panic attacks may also include feelings of nausea, headaches, dizziness or faintness, sweating or trembling and chills or hot flashes. An individual suffering from panic attacks may feel as if their throat is closing or have trouble swallowing. These physical characteristics of panic attacks often provoke further fearful feelings in the individual as they imagine the physical symptoms showing signs of other serious problems or as a warning sign to their impending death. For example, an individual who has a panic attack and feels their heart rate increasing dramatically and has difficulty breathing may fear that they are going to have a heart attack. This fear increases the feeling of panic and exacerbates the condition.

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    Anticipatory Anxiety

    Someone who suffers from panic attacks may also have anticipatory anxiety. This is anxiety caused by the fear of having another panic attack. Rather than being able to relax and enjoy life after having a panic attack, the individual lives in fear of having another panic attack. Due to this fear the individual may begin to avoid situations or events because they are scared they will have a panic attack in the avoided situation or event. Situations and events the individual begins to avoid may be chosen because the individual suffered a panic attack in a similar situation or avoided because the individual believes it would be difficult to get help in the situation or embarrassing to have a panic attack in the situation. This avoidance may become extreme and sometimes leads to other serious psychological disorders such as agoraphobia.

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    Behavioral Symptoms

    Characteristics of panic attacks do not only include physical symptoms and thought processes, but also behavioral symptoms. An individual who has experienced panic attacks may begin to tense their body or hold their breath as they try to distract themselves from situations or events they feel fearful of. Further, an individual who suffers from panic attacks may try to escape situations as soon as they begin to feel uncomfortable or show potential of being scary. These behavioral symptoms are directly related to the anticipatory anxiety one suffering from panic attacks may feel.

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