Let's call him "Tony," a seasoned officer, of formidable size and a strong command presence. Tony works the second watch in a medium-sized department and is considered one of the most squared away guys on the team. If it is hitting the fan, you want Tony covering you. He has been with the department for nine years, and at 34 years old is in overall excellent health. On a fall night Tony is dispatched to a routine disturbance call in the middle of a generally quiet residential neighborhood. He waives cover. In route, Tony pulls to a curb, without any other reason than basic cop instinct; he senses imminent danger and is suddenly overwhelmed with anxiety. Things quickly go from bad to worse for Tony. He feels nauseated, dizzy, hot and sweaty. His vision becomes blurry and his ears burn. His fingers and toes feel numb. Tony has severe pain and tightness in his chest and can feel his heart beating way too fast; breathing is almost too difficult to accomplish. Tony is certain that he dying and things begin to happen in slow motion as an intolerable sense of dread immobilizes him. When Tony didn't answer up to the dispatcher's request for a status update, his beat partner headed to the call, finding Tony's patrol car haphazardly parked two blocks away. Paramedics were called and Tony was rushed to the hospital. After an extensive examination, x-rays, EKGs, and lab work, the emergency room doctor advises Tony that he had not had a heart attack, but had suffered a panic attack. She instructs Tony to follow up with his primary care physician and a mental health professional, and gives him a prescription for Xanax. Tony takes a few days off, telling the department the incident was related to food poisoning, and jokes with his peers. He tells himself it was a fluke occurrence and makes no follow-up appointments.
Panic attacks are very common and can happen to anyone, given the circumstances. Conservatively, more than one in ten people experience at least one panic attack during their lifetime. Some researchers estimate that about 35% of the general population has a panic attack in the course of a year. Attacks often happen at times of stress/strain, after an unpleasant or traumatic experience, or may occur unexpectedly. An attack can last from minutes to hours; most typically symptoms peak in approximately ten minutes and subside in under an hour.
Panic attacks are also very real. Paramedics respond frequently to suspected, and later unfounded, heart attack calls. True attacks are nearly impossible to fake. Those who suffer from panic are not hypochondriacs. The housewife with two kids in the backseat who freaks out when you pull her over for a minor traffic violation, may indeed be in the throngs of a panic attack. Your probable cause stop has just become a living nightmare.
What happens during a panic attack? The body is equipped with an automatic nervous system response to fear, commonly known as the "fight or flight" response. An individual either copes with a real or perceived danger, or runs from it. Law enforcement officers are trained to safely confront all types of danger. A panic attack results when the nervous system reacts as if it is facing a life-threatening situation, even if no actual danger exists. The response triggers a silent alarm that screams danger. People experiencing panic attacks often fear they are dying, suffocating, having a stroke or heart attack, or are simply going crazy. Anyone with these symptoms needs to first be assessed as a medical emergency. The diagnosis of a panic attack is based on the exclusion of medical diagnosis that may manifest with same symptoms.