Enrique is sitting on a seat in the cinema. He went to the cinema with a friend. Suddenly, he begins to feel agitated, tachycardia and hot flushes; You feel very hot, but at the same time you are cold and have chills. “I’m having a heart attack or I’m going crazy,” he thinks.

He leaves the room and drinks some water. You feel disoriented; he would later describe it as “being beside himself”. Go to the nearest hospital emergency department, where your reason for consultation counts: “I’m having a heart attack”. The film is far behind.

After two hours of testing and waiting, the diagnosis arrives. “You had a panic attack,” says the emergency room doctor. Enrique feels disoriented, incompetent and, above all, afraid that the situation will happen again.

This will probably ring a bell for you. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 30% of the population has experienced or will experience a panic attack. In fact, in 2019, 301 million people were diagnosed with an anxiety disorder; 58 million were children and adolescents.

unpredictable and short

A panic attack involves suffering from intense fear that causes very alarming physical reactions for no apparent reason.

One of its characteristics is The affected person’s lack of control over when, where and why. A stressed student can suffer from it in the days before the defense of the doctoral thesis, but also during a relaxing warm bath in the days after the event.

Short duration is another defining feature. While other anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder, are relatively long-lasting and require long-term intervention, a panic attack it lasts barely 10 minutes.

In any case, a person may feel the effects several days later due to anticipatory stress, not knowing when they will experience another similar episode.

What happens to the organism when we suffer it?

Although not everyone experiences it the same way, the most common symptoms are a fast heart rate, sweating, shaking hands, limp legs, nausea, stomach discomfort, dizziness, headache, chest tightness, choking, and a feeling of suffocation.

Are they Physiological manifestations that warn the organism of danger (in this case imaginary) against their physical or psychological integrity.


From a psychobiological perspective, this implies the implementation of processes involved in the organism’s struggle for its own survival. That is, release from cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine and other hormonal mechanisms associated with the autonomic nervous system and subcortical structures such as the amygdala and pituitary gland.

This phenomenon is also associated with cognitive deficit. Some research has shown that having one impairs performance on functions such as attention, working memory and processing speed.

This is mainly explained by the state of confusion and even “depersonalization” caused by the attacks.

More often in rich countries

As stated above, during a panic attack a person feels that they are going crazy, that they are really going to die, or that something is threatening their own integrity. It’s an imaginary threat.

Is imaginary perception it’s what separates human beings from other species, according to neuroscientist and author Robert Sapolsky, author of Why Zebras Don’t Have Ulcers.

Many people of the 21st century live in fear of what could happen because we can meet our basic needs (food, shelter, drink, love), which guarantee our survival at low costs, even before birth.

In fact, several epidemiological studies have shown that panic attacks are more common in high-income Western countries.

Who is most at risk of contracting it?

There is no cause-and-effect relationship between having a particular gene, character or personality trait and your chance of experiencing a panic attack. However, there seems to be a hereditary factor.

Also influences of temperament: highly sensitive people or people with a high level of neuroticism and self-demanding are more likely to go through this disturbing trance.

GETTY IMAGES Psychological therapy can help with panic attacks.

Gender is also a key variable. Numerous studies have shown this women are almost twice as likely to get it than men throughout his whole life. The explanation lies in the cyclical hormonal processes related to the female sex: menopause is the period of greatest sensitivity.

Can they be avoided?

The unpredictability of a panic attack makes it difficult to prevent it, although a patient who has experienced it at least once can reduce anticipatory stress levels at the thought of experiencing another attack. You can also pick up new skills to deal with the episode in case it happens again.

This is achieved by combining psychological therapy and taking certain medications, although there are alternatives such as manual therapy.

It is essential that health systems are prepared from primary health care consultations and emergencies with specific protocols and action strategies for these and other related cases.

Finally, I would like to highlight the importance of giving visibility to panic attacks and other anxiety disorders as part of good professional practice. Extrapolating the catchphrase “information is power” in this context, it follows that if someone knows what a panic attack is, they will be able to act appropriately when they suffer one and, most importantly, they will be able to live without fear of it happening again.

And this work is just as important as psychological assessment and treatment.