Q. What exactly is a panic attack? It feels like I’m uncomfortable and scared of everything. I need to return to work. Any helpful advice?
A: A panic attack is a wave of intense fear. Added to the fear are uncomfortable physical symptoms, such as: a pounding heart; sweating; trembling; shortness of breath; chest discomfort; stomach upset; lightheadedness.
Panic attacks often come with no warning but sometimes they have a specific trigger.
People who suffer from panic attacks may avoid situations where an attack might start. In particular, they’ll keep away from places such as theaters or airplanes, where it would be hard to get away quickly.
Panic attacks are common, but the symptoms don’t last. That is, they have a beginning and an end. But what you describe – being scared of everything – doesn’t sound like a panic attack. Your anxiety and fear sound more constant.
Thus, you may have “generalized anxiety disorder.” With this disorder, a person has nearly constant feelings of worry or anxiety. These feelings are either unusually intense or out of proportion to the reality.
You may feel that you’ve always been a worrier. Or the anxiety may be triggered by a crisis. You may have extra stress at work or in your family. Although the crisis eventually goes away and the stress passes, an unexplained feeling of anxiety may last for months or years.
Symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder include: restlessness; irritability; poor concentration; muscle tension; sleep problems.
A wide range of anxiety-related physical symptoms may seem like symptoms of heart disease, respiratory illness, digestive diseases and other medical illnesses.
I recommend speaking with your primary care doctor. He or she can evaluate whether there is any medical illness contributing to how poorly you feel. If all that checks out, get a referral to a mental health professional who can discuss your treatment options. There are many very effective treatments – such as medicine and psychotherapy – for both panic and generalized anxiety.
Dr. Michael Craig Miller is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and a senior medical editor at Harvard Health Publications.