What Does a Panic Attack Feel Like?

The term “panic attack” is one that most of us are probably familiar with, but many people don’t know exactly what happens during a panic attack, or what to do if one arises. While individuals with anxiety disorders are more likely to experience a panic attack, this sudden onset of severe stress can seem to come out of nowhere, hitting an individual who might otherwise be calm and collected. Though one-time panic attacks can occur, it is more common to see panic attacks recurring until they are met with proper psychological care to address the underlying source of stress. Keep reading to learn more about where panic attacks come from, how to spot them, and what to do to treat them.

Panic attack onset

Panic attacks are a result of stress, which can have a number of negative effects on the body. Interestingly, a panic attack may begin during a period of relative calmness, but is likely inspired by some underlying source of stress, such as trouble at work or a turbulent romantic relationship. A panic attack might also ensue in fear-inducing situations like public speaking. In any situation, it is helpful to note the environmental conditions leading up to a panic attack, as this might help to later sort out the cause.

Panic attack symptoms

It can be difficult to discern when a panic attack is taking place, as there are many different symptoms that can present themselves. Generally, a panic attack will be characterized by any three or more of the following symptoms:

  • Heart palpitations
  • Hyperventilation/shortness of breath
  • Chest pain or tightness
  • Trembling
  • Sweating
  • Feelings of detachment from one’s surroundings
  • Dizziness
  • Cold or hot flashes
  • Fear of dying or insanity
  • Sensation of chocking
  • Nausea
  • Numbness
  • Stomach pains

Because many of these symptoms overlap with those of a heart attack, it can be a challenge to identify a panic attack—especially because symptoms often feel very severe and cause significant worry in the affected individual. While there are no hard and fast rules for differentiating between a panic attack and a heart attack without professional medical care, there are some cues that can indicate that a panic attack is the culprit for symptoms. Usually, chest pain during a heart attack will be related to physical exertion, and it may subside once physical activity has stopped or slowed down, while chest pain from a panic attack persists regardless of physical activity levels. Taking your personal health history is also important, as a history of heart health risks can point toward a cardiovascular episode rather than a panic attack.

Sources for help

If you suspect that you are having a panic attack, it is essential to remember that you can control the situation, although you may feel very out of control in the moment. Try removing yourself to a different room or a quiet space and breathing slowly. Practicing regular relaxation techniques like meditation can prevent future attacks, but it is best to communicate with your doctor about your stress and identify possible lifestyle causes for these episodes of anxiety.

To learn more about panic attacks and treatment, consider speaking with a medical provider. MeMD providers are available 24/7 for on-demand exams.