What Does a Panic Attack Feel Like?

Reviewed on 6/30/2021

Panic attacks are a symptom of a panic disorder, which usually come on suddenly. Symptoms include intense fear, a sense of impending doom, heart palpitations or fast heart rate, sweating, trembling, a feeling shortness of breath or hyperventilating, and a feeling of being smothered or choking, among others.
Panic attacks are a symptom of a panic disorder, which usually come on suddenly. Symptoms include intense fear, a sense of impending doom, heart palpitations or fast heart rate, sweating, trembling, a feeling of shortness of breath or hyperventilating, and a feeling of being smothered or choking, among others.

Panic attacks and fears of having panic attacks are characteristics of panic disorder, a type of anxiety disorder.

Panic attacks come on suddenly and feel like intense feelings of fear or an impending sense of doom that lasts for a short time, usually only a few minutes. The attacks may occur unexpectedly or they may have a trigger. 

Symptoms of a panic attack include:

  • Intense fear 
  • Feelings of impending doom
  • Heart palpitations or fast heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Feeling shortness of breath or hyperventilating
  • Feeling of being smothered or choking
  • Chest pain (people may fear they are experiencing a heart attack)
  • Feelings of being out of control
  • Fear of dying
  • Fear of going crazy
  • Nausea or stomach upset
  • Dizziness
  • Lightheadedness or fainting
  • Feeling detachment from oneself or one’s surroundings 
  • Numbness or tingling sensations
  • Hot or cold flashes

Panic attacks are not the same as anxiety attacks. Differences between panic attacks and anxiety attacks include:

  • Panic attacks start suddenly, while anxiety attacks often come on gradually
  • Panic attacks are more intense senses of fear and dread, while anxiety attacks are an increased level of anxiety
  • People who have panic attacks feel fine beforehand and the attack seems to come out of the blue, while people who have anxiety attacks usually feel slightly anxious before the attack
  • Panic attacks usually lasts about 20 to 30 minutes, reaching their most intense peak about 10 minutes in, while anxiety attacks can take time to build up and may last longer

What Causes Panic Attacks?

There are a number of possible causes of panic attacks, including: 

  • Genetics: the tendency to have panic attacks often runs in families
  • Environmental factors such as early childhood trauma
  • Underlying medical conditions
  • Substance-induced
    • Use of some over-the-counter (OTC) medications, herbal medications, and drugs of abuse
    • Stimulant use (amphetamines, cocaine, caffeine)
    • Medication withdrawal

Conditions that can trigger the onset of a panic attack may include:

  • Stress
  • Loss: death of a loved one or pet, job loss, divorce
  • Major life transitions such as graduating from college and entering the workplace, getting married, or having a baby
  • Problems with relationships
  • Illness
  • Heart problems
  • Caffeine
  • Side effects from medications
  • Low oxygen levels caused by being at high altitudes, having lung disease such as COPD, or a pulmonary embolism

QUESTION

Panic attacks are repeated attacks of fear that can last for several minutes. See Answer

What Is the Treatment for Panic Attacks?

Treatment for panic attacks, which are a type of anxiety disorder, usually consists of a combination of psychotherapy and sometimes medications. 

Types of therapy used to treat anxiety disorders include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) 
  • Exposure therapy 

Medication may be used to temporarily help reduce some symptoms of panic attacks, but it doesn’t treat the underlying cause. Medications used to treat panic attacks may include:

  • Benzodiazepines, especially in emergency situations for quick relief of symptoms 
  • Antidepressants: because these can take weeks to become effective, they are not used for short-term relief

Lifestyle changes and home remedies that may help treat panic disorders include:

  • Avoid caffeine
  • Don’t smoke
  • Avoid alcohol
  • Use caution with over-the-counter preparations and herbal remedies because ephedrine and other herbal compounds may cause or worsen anxiety symptoms
  • Learn to control breathing
  • Practice relaxation techniques
  • Exercise regularly
  • Get adequate sleep

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Reviewed on 6/30/2021
References
https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/286227-overview

https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders/index.shtml#part_145333

https://www.helpguide.org/articles/anxiety/panic-attacks-and-panic-disorders.htm