What are panic attacks?

A lady holding her chest and her head with a worried facial expression.

Raising awareness about panic attacks is essential for understanding and supporting those affected. Panic attacks can cause intense anxiety and panic, often without a specific trigger, and these episodes can significantly impact an individual’s daily life and well-being.

At UHN, the Centre for Mental Health is home to Canada’s most extensive medical psychiatry team, serving some of the country’s most complex patients. UHN is also Toronto’s second-largest mental health research hospital, resulting in having the unique capability to drive the integration of physical and mental health care forward in partnership with patients, caregivers and care providers.

Dr. Rickinder Sethi, an esteemed psychiatrist at UHN’s Centre for Mental Health, provided answers about panic disorder and panic attacks, including those about common symptoms and treatments.

What is panic disorder?

Panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder that manifests in recurrent, unexpected panic attacks.

Dr. Rickinder Sethi, psychiatrist at UHN’s Centre for Mental Health. (Photo: Courtesy Dr. Rickinder Sethi)

What is a panic attack?

A panic attack is a sudden surge of overwhelming fear or anxiety that triggers severe physical and psychological reactions. It can occur with or without an apparent cause and is a profoundly distressing experience that can be debilitating. Panic attacks can affect anyone, regardless of their background or lifestyle.

What are the symptoms of panic attacks?

People often have strong reactions, and they can be highly frightening. Examples include a constellation of experiences, including feeling like you may have a heart attack or trouble breathing. You can also feel like you are losing control or the sense of what is real. Further specific signs include a fast or uneven heart rate, sweating, shaking or trembling, choking, dizziness, nausea, and feeling hot or cold.

What causes panic attacks?

Panic attacks can occur for various reasons, including a family history of anxiety disorders or panic attacks, as well as stressful life experiences. It’s important to explore physical conditions that can resemble the symptoms of panic attacks, such as thyroid imbalances, cardiac irregularities and asthma.

How frequent are panic attacks?

Panic attacks can happen anytime and typically last a few minutes, although some symptoms may last longer. The frequency of panic attacks varies from person to person and depends on the level of stressors or causes they are experiencing at a given time. These attacks are usually linked to stressful situations; for some people, when the stressful situations are over, the panic attacks also stop. However, if you have experienced recurrent, unexpected panic attacks and have spent long periods in constant fear of another attack or avoiding certain situations, you may have panic disorder.

When to seek help?

It is crucial to seek medical help as soon as possible, as panic attacks are challenging to manage alone and may worsen without treatment. Since the symptoms can be similar to those of other serious health issues, such as a heart attack, it is important to seek evaluation if you are unsure about the cause of the symptoms. Evidence-based strategies for managing panic attacks can include therapy, breathing exercises, and medications. The first step is to understand the specific nature of these panic attacks, as they vary from person to person and can be managed using various evidence-based tools.

How are panic attacks treated?

Your primary care provider can assess whether you are experiencing panic attacks, panic disorder, or other conditions, such as heart or thyroid problems. They can then recommend you to a specialist. The main treatment options for these conditions are psychotherapy and medications; either one or both types of treatment may be suggested. With appropriate treatment, the majority of individuals who experience panic attacks or have panic disorder show improvement.

What services are available at UHN for those who have panic disorder or panic attacks?

At UHN, we provide comprehensive care for those dealing with panic disorder and panic attacks. Following an assessment with your primary care provider, you can request a referral to UHN’s Centre for Mental Health. For more information about the referral process, please get in touch with the Centre by phone at 416-603-5025 or via email at [email protected]. We’re here to navigate these challenges with you.

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