A panic attack (also called an “anxiety attack”) is a transient episode characterized by intense anxiety, provoking physical sensations associated with fear.

Panic attacks affect approximately 11% of the US population each year. If left untreated, recurring and prolonged panic attacks can severely impact daily functioning, causing individuals to avoid certain situations out of fear of impending doom. In some cases, people may develop panic disorders, which are characterized by persistent and unexpected attacks, as well as a constant fear of their recurrence.

Symptoms of Panic Attacks

Some of the symptoms that a person may experience during a panic attack include:

● Heightened vigilance

● Anxious and irrational thinking

● Sense of dread or impending danger

● Fear of losing control or going mad

● Lightheadedness

● Trembling

● Sweating

● Accelerated heart rate

● Chest constriction

● Breathing difficulties

● Nausea

● Muscle tension

● Feeling detached from reality

The ‘Flight-or-Fight’ Response

During a panic attack, the body activates the ‘flight-or-fight’ response, flooding the system with chemicals like adrenaline. While typically triggered by immediate danger, panic attacks occur when this response is activated without an imminent threat. A panic attack usually starts with something that makes your heart beat faster. This can be anything in your surroundings that reminds you of a traumatic experience or even a simple thing like drinking coffee.

During a panic attack, the increased heart rate triggers a danger signal in your brain, which causes your body’s fear response to go into overdrive. Your amygdala, located deep in your brain, sends a signal to your hypothalamus. The hypothalamus coordinates involuntary bodily functions such as breathing, blood pressure, and heartbeat. It then sends messages via the autonomic nervous system to your adrenal glands, which release hormones like adrenaline and cortisol into your bloodstream. These hormones activate your body’s survival reflexes and prepare it to take defensive action.

When faced with a threatening situation, your body undergoes various physiological changes to help you either fight or run away from the threat. Your pupils dilate, and your mind becomes more alert and focused. You start breathing faster to take in more oxygen, and your cellular metabolism shifts to ensure maximum glucose availability to your brain and muscles. Your blood flow is redirected away from non-essential areas such as your fingers, toes, and stomach and towards the major muscles of your arms and legs, preparing them for action.

Causes Beyond Anxiety

Certain physical conditions and substances, including medications, tranquilizers, alcohol, and caffeine, may induce symptoms resembling panic attacks. Seeking professional advice is crucial to differentiate panic attacks from other medical conditions, and in emergencies, calling for medical assistance is paramount.

Grounding Techniques for Coping

Grounding techniques serve as coping strategies to reconnect with the present during panic attacks, PTSD flashbacks, distressing emotions, or dissociation.

Five effective techniques include:

1. Focus on Your Senses: Engage with a particular sensation, like holding an ice cube or smelling an essential oil.

2. Practice Breathing Techniques: Employ techniques like “Boxed Breathing” or active muscle tension release, combining breath focus and mindfulness.

3. Stretch: Perform light stretches while concentrating on the physical sensations.

4. Soothing Touch: Rub hands together or place them over your heart for immediate comfort, focusing on tactile sensations. Holding a significant object can also anchor you.

5. Find a Visual Anchor: Concentrate on a chosen object’s details, diverting attention from distressing thoughts and reorienting to the present. Consider having a designated ‘grounding object’ for ongoing use.

6. Exercise: Exercising is an efficient method to reconnect with your body. Whether you do some jumping jacks or go for a long run on your favorite trail, the sensation of exercise on your body can be immensely helpful in overcoming and recovering from a state of panic.

Treating Panic Attacks

Effective treatments are available to manage and reduce the severity and frequency of panic attacks, which can improve daily functioning. The two primary treatment options are psychotherapy and medications. Depending on your preference, medical history, the severity of your panic disorder, and the availability of specialized therapists, one or both forms of treatment may be suggested to you.


Effective treatments are available to help manage panic attacks and improve your quality of life. The two main treatment options are psychotherapy and medications. Depending on your personal preference, medical history, the severity of your panic disorder, and access to qualified therapists, one or both forms of treatment may be recommended.

It’s important to remember that treatment results can take time and effort. You may begin to notice a reduction in panic attack symptoms within a few weeks, and often, the symptoms will decrease significantly or even disappear within several months. To ensure that your panic attacks remain under control or to treat any recurrences, you may want to schedule occasional maintenance visits.


Medications can be effective in alleviating symptoms of panic attacks and depression. Various types of medication effectively manage panic attack symptoms.

Serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs)

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are a type of antidepressant medication that is considered safe and has a low risk of causing serious side effects. These medications are

usually recommended as the first treatment option for panic attacks. Fluoxetine (Prozac), paroxetine (Paxil, Pexeva), and sertraline (Zoloft) are some of the FDA-approved SSRIs that are commonly used to treat panic disorders.


Medications, known as benzodiazepines, are approved by the FDA for the treatment of panic disorder. They work by depressing the central nervous system. Alprazolam (Xanax) and clonazepam (Klonopin) are two benzodiazepines commonly used for this purpose. However, these medications are habit-forming and should only be used on a short-term basis to avoid mental or physical dependence. If you have a history of alcohol or drug use, benzodiazepines may not be the best option for you. Additionally, they can interact with other drugs and cause dangerous side effects.

If a medication does not work effectively for you, your doctor may suggest either switching to another medication or a combination of medications to enhance its effectiveness. It may take several weeks after beginning a medication to notice an improvement in symptoms.

All medications come with a risk of side effects, and some may not be recommended for certain situations, such as during pregnancy. It is essential to discuss any possible side effects and risks with your doctor.

Panic Attack Treatment Available in Falls Church and Reston, Virginia

If you or someone you care about is struggling with frequent and unexpected panic attacks, our team of specialists at My Psychiatrist can provide effective help.

We understand how overwhelming and disruptive panic attacks can be, and our goal is to help you reduce or overcome them so that you can regain the confidence to enjoy your life to the fullest.

Call (571) 946-2189 to make an appointment, or contact us online today!