A sudden fear grips you, and you begin to feel strange physical symptoms and sensations of doom and worry. Is this a panic attack?

Sudden, overwhelming fear: That's panic in a nutshell. You may have felt that kind of sudden, overwhelming fear in terrifying situations - like when you're forced to slam on the brakes to narrowly miss a car speeding through a red light or when a large dog lunges at you with teeth bared.

But a panic attack can happen at moments that have nothing to do with terror - like in the midst of a deep sleep or a dull meeting or while in a class or stuck in traffic or in line at the grocery store. And you don't have to have a diagnosed panic disorder to experience a panic attack.

Panic attacks come on suddenly and unpredictably, and often peak after about 10 to 20 minutes mark. An attack may include several or many of the following symptoms:

  • a sudden feeling of impending doom or death
  • a feeling like you need to escape from where you are
  • a fear of losing control or "going crazy"
  • a feeling of unreality or like you're detached from yourself
  • rapid heart rate, chest pain, or discomfort
  • sweating, chills, or hot flashes
  • shortness of breath
  • trembling or shaking
  • dizziness or faintness
  • tightness in your throat or trouble swallowing
  • numbness or tingling sensations
  • nausea
  • headache

If you have experienced multiple panic attacks "out of the blue," you may have a panic disorder. Another hallmark of a panic disorder is the persistent fear of having another panic attack. This fear can take over your thoughts and affect your behaviour and decisions.

The good news is that panic disorder can be treated through therapy, lifestyle modifications, medication, or a combination of approaches.

To learn more about panic disorder, keep reading here.

Click here to learn ways of coping with panic attacks.