Anxiety, Fear, and Depression

+ -Text Size

TOPICS

Panic attacks and cancer

Panic attacks can be an alarming symptom of anxiety. Panic attacks happen very suddenly and often reach their worst within about 10 minutes. The person may seem fine between attacks, but is usually very afraid that they will happen again.

Symptoms of a panic attack

  • Shortness of breath or a feeling of being smothered*
  • Racing heart*
  • Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint*
  • Chest pain or discomfort*
  • Feeling as if they’re choking*
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Sweating
  • Fear of losing control or “going crazy”
  • An urge to escape
  • Numbness or tingling sensations
  • Feeling “unreal” or “detached” from themselves
  • Chills (shaking or shivering) or hot flashes (may involve sweating or facial reddening)

*If a person is having any of the first 5 symptoms (marked with asterisks), it can mean an urgent or life-threatening condition. Call 911 or the doctor right away if someone unexpectedly has any of these. These symptoms can be signs of other, more serious problems such as shock, heart attack, blood chemistry imbalance, collapsed lung, allergic reaction, or others. It’s not safe to assume that they are panic-related until diagnosed by a doctor.

If the person has had panic attacks in the past, and it happens again exactly like it did before, they can often recognize it as a panic attack.

If the person recovers completely within a few minutes and has no more symptoms, it’s more likely to have been a panic attack. If panic attacks are diagnosed, brief therapy and medicines have been shown to be helpful.

What to do

  • Check with the doctor to be sure that the symptoms are caused by panic and not another medical problem.
  • Stay calm and speak softly during a panic attack.
  • Sit with the person during panic attacks until he or she is feeling better.
  • Call for help if needed.
  • After the panic attack is over, encourage the person to get treatment for the panic attacks.
  • Provide transportation to treatment if needed. The person may be afraid that a panic attack will happen while driving.
  • The ideas listed under “What to do” in the section “Anxiety and Fear” may also be helpful.

Do not

  • Minimize or make light of the person’s terror or fear.
  • Judge the person for feeling scared and acting strangely.
  • Try to talk the person out of their fear or other feelings.
  • Hesitate to call the doctor if you have questions about what’s happening.

Last Medical Review: 09/20/2013
Last Revised: 09/20/2013