Panic attacks are very common, with a third of the general population having a panic attack in the course of a given year. The main symptom of a panic attack is an overwhelming feeling of fear and dread, along with physical and emotional reactions to these powerful feelings. The symptoms come on suddenly, often unexpectedly, and the intensity usually spikes within 10 - 15 minutes. Although most symptoms begin to fade within 30 minutes, it may take up to an hour for all the symptoms to subside. It is possible to have one panic attack after another in waves of panic, and it can seem like one continuous attack.
Not everyone who experiences a panic attack develops panic disorder. People are diagnosed with panic disorder when they have at least two unexpected panic attacks with fear or concern about having another panic attack. This anticipated attack often causes people to avoid situations that may trigger an attack, causing a very restricted life style. The symptoms of a panic attack can be similar to those of a heart attack. Many people seek emergency medical treatment for a panic attack for this reason.
The causes of panic disorder are complex and difficult to understand. Research has shown that three significant contributors to the cause of the disorder include environmental (stressors), genetic (family history of panic disorders), and an imbalance of certain chemicals in the brain (neurotransmitters - serotonin and dopamine).