7 Common Myths About Panic Attacks

Young businessman looking stressed in office

Zero Creatives / Getty Images 

Unfortunately, there are many misunderstandings and false assumptions about panic attacks, which can make it frustrating to explain your condition to others. Panic attack myths can also make it easy to misdiagnose your symptoms or lead you to think that you're weak for not being able to manage your symptoms.

The following are a few common myths about panic attacks, along with the truth, so that you or someone you love can sort out fact from fiction.

Myth #1: You're Just Overreacting to Stress and Anxiety

You've likely heard someone say the following:

  • "'Oh I was so worried, I just about had a panic attack."
  • "You scared me so much, I started to have a panic attack."
  • "I had a panic attack because I was so nervous."

Although common, these types of statements undermine what it means to truly have a panic attack. Expected anxiety or nervousness over life stressors or situations are not the same as having a panic attack.

People who have panic attacks are not overreacting to anything in their environment; they have no control over their symptoms, which can occur out of the blue, without warning. While people may learn to manage these attacks, they don't have control over the fact that they experience them.

Panic attacks typically begin with a sense of dread and anxiety. During a panic attack, the person can experience four or more of the following symptoms:

Myth #2: Only People With Panic Disorder Get Panic Attacks

Although panic attacks are the main symptom of panic disorder, these attacks can also occur with other mental health or medical conditions, including:

What's more, some people with no diagnosable psychiatric disorder can have occasional panic attacks.

Myth #3: They Only Happen When You're Awake

Panic attacks more commonly occur while you're awake. However, they can also happen while you're sound asleep. Known as nocturnal panic attacks, these symptoms can wake you from your sleep and cause feelings of fear and a sense of disconnection from yourself and your surroundings. You may believe you are having a nightmare and find it very difficult to fall back asleep once the panic attack subsides.

Myth #4: Panic Attacks Can Make You Go Insane

When panic strikes, it's common to feel a loss of control and be afraid of losing your mind. Some people may also experience depersonalization and derealization, in which you briefly feel disconnected from yourself and the world around you. While these symptoms are uncomfortable, they are not a sign of psychosis.

The truth is that, although panic attacks are most likely caused by an underlying mental health condition, they are no indication that you are about to “go crazy.”

In general, panic attacks reach a peak within 10 minutes of their onset, before gradually subsiding. Once the attack eases up, you can expect to feel on edge for quite some time, but you have no reason to worry about going insane.

Myth #5: You Can Die From a Panic Attack

Many people end up in the emergency room after their first panic attack because their symptoms can imitate other medical conditions, like a heart attack. For example, the following symptoms can be perceived as a frightening ordeal that necessitates immediate help.

  • Accelerated heart rate
  • Chest pain
  • Excessive sweating
  • Shortness of breath

While these symptoms are not life-threatening in the context of a panic attack, you should always seek medical attention if you're in doubt.

Myth #6: You Can Avoid Panic Attacks

Many people believe that you can prevent panic attacks by avoiding the stimuli that trigger them. For example, a person may have come to the conclusion that if a fear of flying leads to panic attacks, then they should simply not fly. However, this is false for several reasons.

First, panic attacks can occur unexpectedly, without an environmental cause, and at any time. Second, avoiding the objects or situations that cause a phobia will only increase your anxiety and fear. One of the most effective ways to get past anxiety triggers is to face them while trying to maintain a relaxed state, which can be done with exposure therapy.

Myth #7: You Can't Treat Panic Attacks

Facing your fears and learning to manage your panic attacks can best be accomplished through a combination of professional help, medication, and lifestyle modifications.

If you or someone you love is experiencing panic attack symptoms, schedule an appointment with your doctor to determine the underlying cause. Once an official diagnosis has been made, your doctor can assist you in deciding on a course of treatment, which may include:

Through continued treatment and lifestyle modifications, you may be able to control these attacks and return back to your previous levels of functioning. 

If you or a loved one are struggling with panic disorder, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 5th edition. 2013.

  2. Weiner E, Mckay D. A preliminary evaluation of repeated exposure for depersonalization and derealizationBehav Modif. 2013;37(2):226-42. doi:10.1177/0145445512461651

  3. Zugliani MM, Cabo MC, Nardi AE, Perna G, Freire RC. Pharmacological and neuromodulatory treatments for panic disorder: Clinical trials from 2010 to 2018Psychiatry Investig. 2019;16(1):50–58. doi:10.30773/pi.2018.12.21.1

  4. Milrod B, Chambless DL, Gallop R, et al. Psychotherapies for panic disorder: A tale of two sites. J Clin Psychiatry. 2016;77(7):927-935. doi:10.4088/jcp.14m095p