It comes on suddenly – your body ambushes you with dizziness, nausea, sweat, a racing pulse and, worst of all, an impending sense of doom. It’s a panic attack, and while it feels like a sneak attack to most sufferers, a new study shows that many people may actually experience warning signs that simply go undetected.
Sufferers describe symptoms such as pounding heart, dizziness, nausea, a sense of impending doom, sweating, shaking, and shortness of breath, among others.
Not all panic attacks are unexpected. A person who has an intense fear of enclosed spaces or of flying on an airplane can expect that being in a packed elevator or on a flight will cue a panic attack. However, those who suffer from seemingly unpredictable panic attacks often report that the fear of having another random attack can be paralyzing. Sufferers frequently alter their lifestyle and even isolate themselves out of fear that an attack will come on without warning.
But new research from Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas suggests that the body produces warning signs of an impending panic attack as early as an hour beforehand. Significantly, the study reveals that sufferers were unaware of these advance signals. They report their attack as a sudden, out-of-the-blue experience—but don’t seem to sense the physical changes that were gathering and leading up to the full-blown sense of panic.
In the study, researchers monitored physiological changes in 43 patients who suffer from panic disorder. Electrodes and sensors attached to their bodies measured their respiration, analyzing fast or irregular breathing, as well as heart rate, evidence of sweating, and other physiological signs. Participants in the study wore the monitors for 24 hours on two occasions, and a total of 1,960 hours of data was collected.
During this time participants experienced 13 unexpected panic attacks. However, the data analysis revealed that symptoms such as hyperventilating accumulated and gathered prior to the attack but that the panic attack sufferers did not pick up on these signals.
“It is hard to control something that one does not sense,” noted Alicia Meuret, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Southern Methodist University and lead author of the study.
While more research is needed to translate the findings into concrete steps panic attack sufferers can take to recognize and ward off a pending attack, that may come in the future.
“It would be fascinating to explore whether it is possible to monitor the changes that occur before a panic attack, similar to patients who have auras before a migraine or an epileptic attack. By providing a feedback of these changes, we could train sufferers to become aware of them and change them, for example, by means of changing respiration,” Meuret said.
The study findings may also set the stage for deeper investigation into other illnesses that seem to strike without warning, like stroke, seizures, or manic episodes.