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Panic attack

A short period of acute anxiety, often dominated by an extreme fear of losing one’s reason or dying.  Although frightening and unpleasant, panic attacks often only last for a few minutes, are rarely associated with any serious physical illness, and cause no physical harm.

Panic attacks are usually a feature of an anxiety disorder, other phobias, or agoraphobia.  In certain cases, however, some attacks are associated with schizophrenia or somatisation disorder. 

Attacks are initially unpredictable, but tend to become linked with specific situations, such as being in a cramped lift or room.  Symptoms start suddenly.  They include a sense of breathing difficulty, palpitations, chest pains, feeling light headed, dizziness, faintness, trembling and sweating.  Hyperventilation usually also occurs.  This condition leads to carbon dioxide levels in the blood becoming dangerously low, which leads to a pins and needles sensation and feelings of derealisation and depersonalisation.  The attacks come to an abrupt end. 

The symptoms of hyperventilation can be relieved rapidly by covering the nose and mouth with a small paper bag and breathing into the bag for a few minutes; this helps to restore the carbon dioxide levels to normal.  In the more longer term, cognitive behavioural therapy and relaxation techniques can be used to help afflicted people control their anxiety.

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