Panic attacks are characterized as potent surges of anxiety and/or fear that often occur unexpectedly, but can also be triggered by a stimulus. Individuals who have experienced panic attacks know that they can be highly uncomfortable and take the meaning of anxiety to an entirely new level. Some people may experience panic attacks just once as a result of a highly stressful situation and life circumstances.
People that experience recurrent uncontrollable episodes of panic attacks are usually diagnosed with “panic disorder.” In most cases, panic attacks are triggered by some sort of phobia, high levels of stress, emotional distress and/or trauma. The unfortunate aspect of panic attacks for many people is their unpredictable nature.
Some people never experienced a panic attack in their lives until exposed to a stressful situation such as a car accident, divorce, or loss of a job. Additionally if you have an anxiety disorder and/or panic attacks run in your family, there is a greater chance that you will experience them more frequently. Although most panic attacks last between 20 and 30 minutes, the symptoms can cause significant psychological distress.
Panic Attack Symptoms & Signs
If you think you may have experienced a panic attack, read below and see if you can relate to any of the symptoms listed. Understand that panic attacks manifest different symptoms depending on the individual. Although many symptoms of those experiencing a panic attack are the same, others will be unique to the person dealing with the attack.
- Adrenaline production: When people panic, they may feel adrenaline (epinephrine) coursing throughout their bodies. If the person is unable to relax, their sympathetic nervous system is overpowering their parasympathetic functioning. Adrenaline usually signals fight-or-flight responses and gives us a temporary boost in energy. This is why people who are “panicking” appear to be extremely “keyed” up – almost as if they are being attacked by a predator.
- Body aches: Some people may experience aches throughout their body during a panic attack. Although this isn’t something that everyone deals with when they panic, many people notice feeling achy. Common areas to feel ache are the head and the chest.
- Blushing: An apparent symptom that many people exhibit while panicking is that of blushing or increased redness throughout their face. You may also notice blotches throughout the skin of a person who is panicking. Usually these blotches are red or discoloration that only occur when a person is having a panic attack.
- Chest pain: When we panic, our bodies become tense and this tension can lead us to feel pain. A common area to notice pain is in our chest. In addition to having chest pain, many people also have heart palpitations, which can make it seem as though they are having a “heart attack.” In most cases, the chest pain subsides when the panic is over.
- Chills: It is common to notice changes in body temperature and/or feeling chilled during panic. Feeling chilled can be related to an increase in sweating, but can also be a physiological response caused by feelings of extreme fear.
- Choking: Some people end up choking up and cannot seem to slow down their breathing. The choking is usually caused by hyperventilation and constriction of the throat during panic. Therefore instead of being able to breathe normally, many people end up choking – especially while trying to talk.
- Crying spells: Many people end up experiencing such a profound state of fear during panic, that they feel helpless and actually cry. It is very common to cry uncontrollably during a panic attack due to the discomfort that a person feels.
- Depersonalization: When panic sets in, it is common to feel void of all emotion. The only thing that you feel is a sensation of fear, which can result in feeling detached from your natural emotions and reality. You may feel like you have transformed into a monster that cannot be controlled.
- Dilated pupils: You may notice that your pupils dilate and look abnormally large while you panic. This is a physiological response that occurs in all humans – when you relax, your pupils contract. When the nervous system becomes highly stimulated, the pupils dilate to let more light in the eye; this is an evolutionary response.
- Dizziness: The surge of adrenaline throughout your body can lead you to feel dizzy, as can your breathing. When you breathe improperly (as is common during panic), you cause a homeostatic imbalance in your body’s functioning. Some suggest that CO2/Oxygen ratios during breathing is what likely leads to dizziness.
- Fear: Panic attacks are characterized by extreme sensations of fear that cannot be controlled. Many people feel as if they are losing control over their emotions as well as the way their bodies are responding during the panic attack.
- Headache: The increase in adrenaline coupled with heightened tension throughout the body leads most people to experience headaches. The headache that you experience from a panic attack can be pretty extreme. When stimulation throughout the body increases, we tense up and when the tension is maintained, it can lead to relatively potent headaches.
- Heart palpitations: These are sensations that your heart is fluttering, racing, or beating loudly. At a normal level of arousal, you probably don’t even notice your heart beating. During panic, you become increasingly aware of changes in bodily functions – including your heart. The palpitations coupled with the symptom of chest pain may trick some people into thinking that they are having a heart attack, which usually leads to further panic.
- High blood pressure: Some people notice spikes in their blood pressure when experiencing panic. The fear-response generated by your sympathetic nervous system tends to increase arousal and overall stimulation. This can lead some people to note slight or significant increases in blood pressure during an attack.
- Hyperventilation: This is characterized by rapid breathing that occurs during states of panic that may leave you breathless. Essentially this is what contributes to throwing the O2 and CO2 intake out of balance. Although this symptom may seem relatively easy to control, for the person experiencing the panic it is extremely difficult to reestablish calm breathing.
- Knotted stomach: You may notice that knots start to develop in your stomach. Usually a general tension or discomfort is reported in the stomach when someone panics. The “knots” are usually a result of tension and nervous energy. Some people report “stomach aches” which are also very similar to knots.
- Lightheadedness: The lightheadedness caused during a panic attack is generally due to improper breathing. However, when a person feels lightheaded, they will often report that they may faint. Usually a person will not actually faint as a result of a panic attack and improper breathing. Feeling lightheaded may promote even more panic and anxiety because now a person may fear that they will faint, when in reality it is highly unlikely.
- Nausea: In extreme cases of panic, a symptom that people may report is that of nausea. Feeling nauseated can lead some individuals to vomit. The nausea is often caused by simultaneous rapid physiological changes in the nervous system, throwing normal functioning out of balance. Therefore when someone says their panic attacks are making them “sick” – they are likely telling the truth.
- Numbness: Not only could you feel emotionally numb as your emotions are masked by adrenaline, but you may feel physically numb. During the panic response, your body preps itself for danger and usually increases its pain threshold. Therefore you may not be as prone to pain because your body is flooding itself with adrenaline.
- Obsessive thinking: Many people notice rapid, uncontrollable thoughts during their panic attack. This is especially common if there is a certain stimulus that is “triggering” the panic. A person may dwell on specific thoughts and not be able to stop thinking about whatever it is that’s causing them to panic.
- Panic: Obviously if you are having a panic attack, the primary symptom is that of panic. This is characterized as uncontrollable fear, terror, or anxiety – usually in response to a specific stimulus.
- Racing heart: The sympathetic nervous system increases heart rate during a state of panic. This is something that most people can detect along with palpitations that they experience. If you feel as if your heart is racing, just know that this is a normal symptom.
- Rapid thoughts: During panic, it is common to experience a spike in higher frequency beta brain waves and a reduction in alpha brain waves. Beta waves are high frequencies with low amplitude that are commonly generated by states of panic and anxiety. Rapid uncontrollable thoughts of fear and anxiety are often linked to changes in brain waves during panic attacks.
- Shaking: Many people notice that they are unable to stop physically shaking during a panic attack. The shakes are caused by an increase in adrenaline, essentially providing the body with more “fear” energy to use to escape a dangerous situation. Since most people aren’t running from a predator, they may literally shake with panic.
- Shortness of breath: The rate at which someone breathes tends to increase and become imbalanced, leading to shortness of breath. This is caused by abnormal processing of inhalation and exhalation. Usually as a person relaxes, their breathing returns to normal and the shortness of breath subsides.
- Sweating: We may notice a significant increase in sweating during a panic attack. The sweating is a natural response to heightened stimulation from the fear response generated by the sympathetic nervous system. You may notice that your hands start to sweat and become clammy as you continue to panic.
- Tingling sensations: Another common symptom associated with panic attacks is that of tingling across the skin and extremities. If you notice that your skin starts to tingle while you panic, it is because your parasympathetic nervous system (homeostasis) is being interrupted by the panic response.
- Urination: You may notice that your bladder fills up and you may need to urinate during panic. When we panic, it’s an instinctual reaction from our bodies to empty any extra weight. For our ancestors faced predators, losing the extra urine weight was beneficial because it made them lighter and increased chances of escape. Some people may actually wet themselves during a panic attack. Although this is quite embarrassing (especially in public), it is a reality for many.
- Vomiting: During panic, some people actually start choking and spitting up – mistaking it for actual vomit. Some people experience such extreme gagging that they actually end up vomiting, but this is not the same type of vomiting that occurs when a person is sick with something like the flu. It is more triggered by the gag reflex and feeling temporarily sick with a panic response.
Note: It should be mentioned that you may experience other symptoms caused by a panic attack that are not listed here. Feel free to reference the article “Physical Symptoms of Anxiety” for additional information.
Learning how to cope with panic attacks
It can be incredibly difficult to learn how to deal with anxiety and symptoms that are caused by panic attacks. For each person, the trigger for a panic attack is usually completely unique to that particular person. One individual may have a panic attack every time they are exposed to a certain trigger while others may experience them unpredictably, without any particular trigger.
Fortunately most people are able to learn how to successfully cope with their panic attacks. Ways to cope include: avoiding panic triggers, cognitive behavioral therapy, and various types of medications. Additionally if you are a person with a naturally high level of arousal, you may benefit from activities such as meditation and yoga – which naturally increase activity in the parasympathetic nervous system; in some cases serving as natural cures for anxiety.
Even though a quick fix to treat panic attacks is taking a medication, most medications are not sustainable treatments over the long term. To understand how to cope with panic attacks, it is important to educate yourself, understand the symptoms, and realize that therapy and lifestyle changes can be of significant benefit. By learning how to properly cope with feelings of panic, you will reduce the occurrence of “panic attacks” and successfully maintain control of your life.