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Anxiety and Stress Disorders

Could This be a Panic/Anxiety Attack?

02/06/2001

Question:

I`m not really sure if this is the proper site or not, but I`ll ask just in case. Last week from Thursday until Sunday, I guess I would have to compare it to the feeling you get when being suddenly very scared, and all the air being squeezed out of your chest. This bothered me all weekend and seemed to occur every few minutes. Since last weekend, the symptoms have never gone away, I would still get the feeling of all the oxygen being squeezed out of me, only I would experience this maybe 15-20 times a day with the exception of last night, it occured what seemed like every few minutes and my breathing became very fast. I don`t smoke, haven`t been injured, haven`t been stressed out or anything you would ask someone that might be having an anxiety attack. I`ve made an apointment to see my family physician next Wednesday. What do you think the problem is or could be? Thanks in advance.

Answer:

It sounds as though you were experiencing a "good old fashioned" panic (or "anxiety") attack. Which is certainly a frightening, exhausting experience when it lasts for only a few moments, let alone several days. Panic attacks are fairly common--some studies suggest that as many as 40% of individuals will experience one in their lifetime. They are characterized by feeling short of breath, having sweaty palms, feeling dizzy, tightness in the throat or chest, feeling shaky, hot (or hot/cold flashes), some individuals experience weakness, and most feel that they are losing control, having a heart attack or going crazy. For some people the world can begin to seem unreal. These symptoms typically start off, then reach a peak, then subside. Often they can do this repeatedly (as in your case), though more typically they start off, reach a peak in approximately 10 minutes, and then go away slowly. Even though people who are having a panic attack often feel like they are dying, other people looking at them may have no idea how terrified the person feels. Unfortunately, panic attacks are not always brought on by stress. Although most people experience first episodes during times when they may have greater stress or more negative life events, these attacks can occur spontaneously, without any known trigger. Typically we focus on the way that we interpret these symptoms--how frightening they are to us--as cues to why these attacks are occurring. Interestingly, most often when people experience panic attacks, they believe they are having medical problems (heart attacks), and are told about panic only when extensive medical tests prove negative. We encourage you to keep your appointment with your doctor, particularly if you have any history of heart disease (in yourself or your family), to rule out this possibility. If this was, indeed, a panic attack, your doctor should be able to provide information about panic, or feel free to visit our website for more information and information about treatment options available to cope with these attacks.

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Response by:

Norman B Schmidt, PhD
Associate Professor
College of Social and Behavioral Sciences
The Ohio State University

Kathleen Kara Fitzpatrick, MA
Clinic Staff
College of Social and Behavioral Sciences
The Ohio State University