What Does a Panic Attack Feel Like

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What Does a Panic Attack Feel Like

There is a myth about what a panic attack feels like. The truth is that there is a lot of misunderstanding about panic attacks and a lot of stigma surrounding them. We are here to help you separate the myths from the reality, so you are better able to manage yourself during a panic attack and are better educated on what to do when someone around you may be having a panic attack. So if you’re wondering, what does a panic attack feel like, we can clarify it all for you.  


Here is one person's story about their first panic attack: 

I was 19 years old when I had my first panic attack. I remember I was in college and walking back from the dining hall to my dorm. I don't know what the trigger was, I can't even remember how it started, I just know that there was a quick onset of fear, and I just started to cry. I hugged myself and hurriedly walked back to my room, sobbing the entire way. This room was shared with two other students and there was nowhere to hide this unexplainable emotion and this intense shame. I simply had to curl up in my bed and face the wall. 

I had so many questions:

  • What was happening to me?

  • Why was this happening to me?

  • How could I make it all go away? 



The truth is, it took me years. It took me years of education and therapy to understand that I was suffering from a mental illness. Over time, I grew to understand the intense rush of distress and fear and to know that all those times I had experienced it before I was also having a panic attack just at a less severe level. 

There are quite a number of misconceptions that are connected to panic attacks surrounding what they look like and feel like. In an effort to reduce the stigma around a panic attack we must now separate the myths from the reality. 


Panic Attacks: Myth Vs Reality

Myth # 1 - All panic attacks are the same. 

The Reality - panic attacks will feel different from one person to the next. 

Common panic attacks symptoms include:

  • A racing heart

  • Shortness of breath

  • Nausea

  • Chest Pain 

  • Feeling unsafe

  • Feeling like one is losing control 

  • Dizziness 

There are a number of symptoms that are possible and you may or may not feel all of them. 

My panic attacks tend to start with my face feeling flushed, then a rush of heat as I fill with intense fear and my heart starts to race. I often end up crying in short order and there are typically no significantly noticeable triggers. 

For quite some time I was not sure if I could call my experience a panic attack. I told myself I was being dramatic and I did not want to admit that I need care and the concern of others. 

The reality is that panic can look different from one person to the next. But regardless of what an individual’s panic looks like, the truth is that they need and deserve support. 


Myth # 2 - People having panic attacks are just dramatic or are overreacting. 

The reality is that people having panic attacks have no control over what is happening to them. While we do not know the cause of a panic attack, we know that they are often triggered by stressful events, changes in one’s environment, mental illness and sometimes the stimuli is totally unspecified. 

The person going through a panic attack will be uncomfortable and their actions will be involuntary and come on without any warning. People experiencing a panic attack really don't want any of the attention their panic attack brings them and usually sends them into feelings of shame. 

My experience with panic attacks in the past would have me wanting to quickly leave the environment, so I could go home as I did not want to be embarrassed in public. Often I would hear things like “Can't you just calm down?” or “There’s really nothing to be upset about!” Hearing these things only made the situation harder and made getting to a calm place more difficult. 

The best thing you can do for someone having a panic attack is to simply ask them what you can do to help them and try to support them in the way they need. It is not about what you want or what you think. If the individual is your friend or family member, try asking them outside of a panic attack, what can calm them down so you know what to do when the situation arises. 


Myth # 3 - An individual having a panic attack will need medical assistance or attention. 

Observing a panic attack can be quite a scary experience. It is important for you to ensure that the individual is not in immediate danger. You will need to remain calm. Once they start having the attack you can ask them what they need and ensure you respect their answer. If they tell you they can take care of it themselves, you should believe them. 

Over time a lot of sufferers become very good at managing their panic attacks and some can even stop them. Others have a default plan that they can use when the situation arises. 

I am at the point where I know exactly what I should do when I have a panic attack. Most often, with a little time I can get the things I need done and usually don't even worry about the judgment being passed by those around me. 


Myth # 4 - Only people with a diagnosed mental illness have panic attacks. 

In fact, anyone can have a panic attack, even those that do not have a diagnosed mental illness. Of course, there are some people who are at a higher risk of having a panic attack, those with mental illness included. Those with a history of child abuse or trauma and a family history of panic attacks are also at a higher risk. Persons with the following diagnoses have a greater risk of a panic attack:


  • GAD - Generalized Anxiety Disorder

  • PTSD - Post Traumatic Stress Disorder 

  • Panic Disorder

There are still people at risk who are not affected by any of the above. Sometimes, a simply stressful school, work, or home environment can be traumatic. Sometimes it could be as simple as not getting enough sleep, enough water, or enough food. 

As a result, it is good if everyone has an idea of what a panic attack feels like and what can help them to get back to a calm place. With just a bit of understanding, you can reduce the stigma that surrounds mental illness. The ability to explain what is happening to you or what has happened can be a great help for those around you. 

The most difficult part to cope with for many is the mental illness stigma. This, along with the rough time that may have triggered the panic attack, can make the experience even worse. Due to this, the ability to separate the myths from the reality can make a big difference to those suffering from panic attacks. 

I have had the experience to be impressed by my friends who have learned how to respond to my anxiety and my panic attacks. They provide me with incredible amounts of support from simply sitting by me while I am upset, to help me advocate for my needs when I am not able to express myself. I am extremely grateful for this support and hope every sufferer will one day gain this support as well. 


How to Tell If You're Having a Panic Attack Versus An Anxiety Attack

The terms panic attack and anxiety attack are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same thing. Both have several symptoms in common but there are key characteristics that help to distinguish them both. The different attacks have a different duration and have different intensities as well. 


Panic Attacks 

These are more intense than anxiety attacks. Panic attacks tend to come out of the blue most often, while anxiety attacks are most often brought on by some type of trigger. Panic attacks tend to occur in persons who have panic disorder. 


Anxiety Attacks 

Anxiety attacks are linked to a number of mental health conditions including trauma and obsessive-compulsive disorder. 


Signs and Symptoms

The best way to highlight the difference between the two is to compare the symptoms of each. 

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Panic attacks tend to come on suddenly without any obvious triggers. The symptoms of a panic attack include:

  • Pounding or racing heartbeat

  • Chest pain 

  • Lightheadedness

  • Dizziness

  • Chills

  • Hot flashes

  • Nausea

  • Tingling in the extremities

  • Numbness in the extremities

  • Shortness of breath 

  • Sweating 

  • Stomach pain 

  • Feeling smothered 

  • Feeling like you are being choked

  • Feel like you are going crazy

  • The feeling like you have lost all control 

  • Suddenly fearing death

  • Experiencing deseasonalization 

  • Detaching from their surroundings


These symptoms tend to peak after 10 minutes and will gradually subside afterward. There are times though, when multiple panic attacks occur in succession and so it may seem like a panic attack is lasting for more than 10 minutes. 

After the attack, you may feel worried, stressed or just unusual for the remainder of the day. 

Anxiety attacks tend to come on after a period of excessive worry. The symptoms may become more pronounced over time as the attack progresses. Anxiety attack symptoms tend to be less intense than those of a panic attack. 

The symptoms of an anxiety attack include:

  • Chest pain

  • Dizziness

  • Being easily startled

  • Dry mouth 

  • Fatigue 

  • Irritability 

  • Fear 

  • Loss of concentration

  • Numbness in the extremities

  • Tingling in the extremities

  • Muscle pain 

  • Rapid heart rate 

  • Restlessness  

  • Disturbances in sleep pattern

  • Shortness of breath 

  • Feeling like you are being smothered

  • The sensation of being choked

  • General worry 

  • Generalized distress 


Anxiety attacks and their symptoms last longer than those associated with panic attacks. They can persist for days, even weeks and in extreme cases for months. 


The difference Between the Two 

Since the symptoms of both are so similar in nature, it is often hard for the average person to be able to tell the difference between a panic attack and an anxiety attack. Here are a couple of tips that can help you to differentiate the two:

  1. Panic attacks occur without a trigger while anxiety attacks occur after a perceived threat or stressor. 

  1. Panic attacks create more disruptive and intense symptoms including a sense of detachment and unreality, while anxiety symptoms can be anywhere from mild to severe. 

  1. Panic attacks are known for their sudden onset of symptoms while anxiety symptoms rise over time, even over days. 

  1. Panic attacks don't last for very long and can subside in just a couple minutes while anxiety symptoms can go on for months. 


What Causes Panic Attacks

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Stress and pressure in the workplace is very common for adult panic attacks. Sometimes an individual can even expect an attack based on what is going on in their lives. Other times attacks come out of the blue with seemingly no reason. Expected panic attacks and anxiety attacks tend to be triggered by the same things. These include:

  • Social stress

  • Work stress

  • Caffeine

  • Driving

  • Alcohol withdrawal

  • Drugs withdrawal

  • Chronic pain

  • Chronic conditions

  • Supplements

  • Medications

  • Some phobias

  • Past trauma 


Panic Attack Risk Factors

Persons are more likely to have a panic attack if they have:

  • An anxious personality

  • Mental issues such as anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, or depression

  • A Family history of panic or anxiety disorder

  • Chronic medical conditions such as heart disease, diabetes or thyroid disorder

  • Suffered from drug or alcohol abuse

  • Ongoing stress from personal or professional life

  • Experienced a stressful event

  • Had a traumatic past experience

  • Witnessed a traumatic experience

Statistics show that females are more likely to have panic attacks and anxiety attacks. 


Diagnosing Panic Attacks 

A panic attack or panic disorder can be diagnosed by a medical doctor or a mental health professional. Diagnosis is determined through the definitions that are contained in the DSM-5: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition

While these professionals cannot diagnose an anxiety attack, they can use the guidelines to recognize the symptoms. The doctor will discuss your life events and symptoms and may perform a psychological evaluation to see which category you fall into. They may start to rule out physiological conditions that may bring similar symptoms. A doctor may perform a physical examination, heart tests, and blood tests to help them get the right diagnosis. 


What to Do During a Panic Attack or Anxiety Attack 

Here are some strategies that can help.  


  1. Acknowledge that you are having an attack. 

While this can be very frightening, the first thing to do is to acknowledge that the symptoms will pass. 


  1. Breathe slowly and deeply.

One of the most common symptoms of both panic and anxiety attacks is difficulty breathing. Slow your breathing as you inhale and exhale to help you get to a steady rate of breathing that will help your symptoms to subside. Count to four, with each inhale and exhale. 


  1. Relax

You can opt to use a number of methods for relaxation such as guided imagery. This can help you with reducing your anxiety and feelings of panic. You can learn these techniques from a qualified therapist. 


  1. Practice Mindfulness 

This practice can help you to stay grounded in the current moment. Those with anxiety will find this practice very beneficial and will notice the effects soon after they start practicing.


Home Remedies

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The following home remedies are recommended by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America

  • Discovering triggers

  • Maintain a positive attitude

  • Reduce stressors

  • Manage stressors

  • Limit your intake of caffeine

  • Limit your intake of alcohol

  • Eat a balanced and healthy diet

  • Get adequate rest each night

  • Exercise daily 

  • Find things you enjoy that you can you do 

  • Practice deep breathing

  • Practice yoga

  • Practice meditation 

  • Get a support system


FAQ Regarding Medical Treatments

If you are debating whether you need to seek treatment or not, here are some of the questions you may be asking yourself and some possible answers. 


  1. Does Therapy Work? 

Therapy can help you to identify triggers as well as helps you to manage your symptoms. Therapy may also help you to deal with issues from your past. Persons diagnosed with panic disorder or anxiety disorder may find cognitive behavioral therapy to be the most effective type of treatment.  


  1. Does Medication Help? 

Medication is helpful for reducing symptoms for those who have recurrent panic or anxiety attacks or severe attacks. Medication is often used in conjunction with therapy for those with panic or anxiety issues. Some of the medications that can be prescribed include:

  • Antidepressants

  • Anti-anxiety meds

  • Benzodiazepines


Getting Through a Panic Attack

When you are in the middle of a panic attack, it can be hard to get it under control. It is possible though. The best thing to do is to get the help you need from a therapist. They can help you to learn the coping techniques that will work to dissipate the symptoms of your attack. 

You may learn techniques such as deep breathing, muscle relaxation and how to face your fears. Experts claim that the latter is one of the best ways to control your panic attacks. They indicate that you must allow yourself to have the panic attack in an effort to desensitize yourself. 

When you can bring the symptoms on by yourself, you will have some amount of control over your panic attacks. Once you get used to the situations, you will find that your body will react differently to panic attacks. 

If your panic attacks are coming on more than once per month you will definitely want to let a mental health professional know. Make an appointment today. 

But what does a panic attack feel like? At the end of the day a panic attack is very different from an anxiety attack even though they have some shared symptoms. Panic attacks happen suddenly and are more intense. Anxiety attacks tend to come on after periods of worry or stress and may cause symptoms that last for months. 

Both types of attacks can be disruptive and distressing, but there are a number of self-help strategies to help get your symptoms under control. The bottom line is that the sooner you get help the better the outcome. 

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