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A panic attack is a sudden surge of overwhelming anxiety and fear. Your heart pounds and you can’t breathe. You may even feel like you’re dying or going crazy. Left untreated, panic attacks can lead to panic disorder and other problems. They may even cause you to withdraw from normal activities. But panic attacks can be cured and the sooner you seek help, the better. With treatment, you can reduce or eliminate the symptoms of panic and regain control of your life.
Panic attacks are sudden, intense surges of fear, panic, or anxiety. They are overwhelming, and they have physical as well as emotional symptoms. Many people with panic attacks may have difficulty breathing, sweat profusely, tremble, and feel their hearts pounding. Some people will also experience chest pain and a feeling of detachment from reality or themselves during a panic attack, so they make think they’re having a heart attack. Others have reported feeling like they are having a stroke.
What are panic attacks?
Panic attacks and their signs and symptoms can last from a few moments to many hours. The length of panic attack is generally determined by how frightened a person is and how they react to what it is they are afraid of, including the panic attack itself. The greater the reaction, the longer and more powerful the panic attack and symptoms. Panic attacks can be powerful, frightening, and like they are out of your control. Those who experience panic attacks quickly learn that they can be highly unpleasant experiences. Even so, panic attacks (Panic Disorder) can be successfully treated. No one needs to suffer needlessly. More on this in a moment.
A panic attack may be a one-time occurrence, but many people experience repeat episodes. Recurrent panic attacks are often triggered by a specific situation, such as crossing a bridge or speaking in public—especially if that situation has caused a panic attack before. Usually, the panic-inducing situation is one in which you feel endangered and unable to escape.
Signs and symptoms of a panic attack
Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
Trembling or shaking
Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
Feelings of choking
Chest pain or discomfort
Nausea or abdominal distress
Feeling dizzy, unsteady, light-headed, or faint
Chills or heat sensations
Paresthesia (numbness or tingling sensations)
Derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself) Listen to this podcast.
Fear of losing control or “going crazy”
Fear of dying
Some people experience what is referred to as limited-symptom panic attacks, which are similar to full-blown panic attacks but consist of fewer than four symptoms.
The above panic attack disorder symptoms and signs can be accompanied by:
Choking sensation, tightening throat, it feels like your throat is closing, it feels like something is stuck in your throat
Depersonalization (feeling detached from reality, separate from one-self, separate from normal emotions)
Derealization (feeling unreal, in a dream-like state)
Dizziness, lightheadedness, unsteadiness
Inability to calm yourself down
Knot in the stomach, tight stomach
Pounding, racing heart
Butterflies in the stomach
Sudden urge to go to the bathroom (urinate, defecate)
Feel like crying
Feel like freaking out
This list is not exhaustive.
Panic attack disorder symptoms in men
While it may seem like men and women experience different panic attack disorder symptoms, they don’t. Since each person is somewhat chemically unique, signs and symptoms of a panic attack can vary from person to person, and even from men to women.
Panic attack disorder symptoms in women
As mentioned above, panic attack disorder symptoms can be similar for women and men. But because each person is somewhat chemically unique, each person can have a unique set of panic attack disorder symptoms and intensities. However, women may experience more frequent, stronger, and more panic attacks and their symptoms nearing or during their monthly menstruation cycle, if they are taking Hormone Replacement Therapy, if pregnant or postpartum, or when in perimenopause or menopause.
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Medication can be used to temporarily control or reduce some of the symptoms of panic disorder. However, it doesn’t treat or resolve the problem. Medication can be useful in severe cases, but it should not be the only treatment pursued. Medication is most effective when combined with other treatments, such as therapy and lifestyle changes, that address the underlying causes of panic disorder.
How to handle a panic attack
Use deep breathing. While hyperventilating is a symptom of panic attacks that can increase fear, deep breathing can reduce symptoms of panic during an attack.
Recognize that you’re having a panic attack. By recognizing that you’re having a panic attack instead of a heart attack, you can remind yourself that this is temporary, it will pass, and that you’re ok. Take away the fear that you may be dying or that impending doom is looming, both symptoms of panic attacks. This can allow you to focus on other techniques to reduce your symptoms.
Some people find it helpful to count steadily from one to five on each in-breath and each out-breath.
Close your eyes and focus on your breathing.
Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness can help ground you in the reality of what’s around you. Since panic attacks can cause a feeling of detachment or separation from reality, this can combat your panic attack as it’s approaching or actually happening.
Use muscle relaxation techniques. Much like deep breathing, muscle relaxation techniques can help stop your panic attack in its tracks by controlling your body’s response as much as possible. Consciously relax one muscle at a time, starting with something simple like the fingers in your hand, and move your way up through your body. Muscle relaxation techniques will be most effective when you’ve practiced them beforehand.
Repeat a mantra internally. Repeating a mantra internally can be relaxing and reassuring, and it can give you something to grasp onto during a panic attack. Whether it’s simply “This too shall pass,” or a mantra that speaks to you personally, repeat it on loop in your head until you feel the panic attack start to subside.
Ways to prevent panic attacks
Doing breathing exercises every day will help to prevent panic attacks and relieve them when they are happening.
Regular exercise, especially aerobic exercise, will help you to manage stress levels, release tension, improve your mood and boost confidence.
Eat regular meals to stabilise your blood sugar levels.
Avoid caffeine, alcohol and smoking – these can make panic attacks worse.
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