How to tell if you're having a panic attack

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Q: I think I had a panic attack. I’ve never gotten one before—what do I do now?

Did you suddenly feel like you were going crazy or about to die? And did that feeling come with a rapid heartbeat, nausea, and sweating and last for half an hour or less? If so, it sounds like a classic panic attack. Panic attacks usually arrive out of nowhere, meaning they aren’t a reaction to an upsetting situation. It’s not unusual to have a panic attack once and then never again, or to not have another for a very long time.

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If, however, you start getting them with some frequency and, more importantly, begin worrying between attacks that you’re going to get one, then you may be experiencing panic disorder. Left untreated, panic disorder can become disabling because sufferers will avoid certain situations and places out of fear they’ll be hit by an attack. The more they do that, though, the smaller their world becomes, and the worse the panic tends to get.

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If you have another panic attack, see a psychiatrist or psychologist who’s experienced in treating this particular type of anxiety disorder. Cognitive behavioral therapy is generally the best way to work past panic, possibly paired with an anxiety medication in the most severe cases. The causes of the disorder aren’t totally understood, but panic does often run in families. Also, steer clear of caffeine until you’ve been panic-free for a while; it can trigger these feelings when consumed even in small amounts.

Gail Saltz, MD, is a psychiatrist and television commentator in New York City who specializes in health, sex, and relationships.

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