Identifying The Symptoms Of Panic Attack
By Nadia Khan
Updated May 12, 2020
Reviewer Emily Genever
About 2.7% of the U.S. adult population will have a panic attack in any given year. The millions of people who report having panic attacks include only the people who recognize at least the main symptoms of panic attack or have been diagnosed with the disorder by their doctors. If you suspect you've had a panic attack, it's important to examine the incident to identify the symptoms as being the markers of a panic attack rather than a medical emergency like a heart attack. Only when you know what's really happening can you get the treatment that will give you relief.
Emotions Associated with Panic Attacks
The overriding emotion at the center of a panic attack is fear. You might have a clear idea about what you're afraid of or the feeling of fear may seem to come out of nowhere. After you've had one or more panic attacks, you might begin to fear the attack itself. This fear can actually bring on an attack that might not otherwise have happened. You might also feel an overwhelming sense of impending doom, fearing that the attack will cause you to die. You may feel as if you are looking from the outside yourself. You might have a feeling of unreality while the attack is going on.
Physical Sensations of a Panic Attack
Signs of a panic attack can seem very physical in nature. The first time you have a panic attack, you may think you are in physical danger of losing your life. However, with experience, you can learn to recognize that the symptoms are part of a panic disorder. The following are some signs of panic attack that can mimic physical ailments.
Chest Pain or Discomfort
Most people with panic attacks feel chest pain. You might have other sensations in your chest that cause discomfort, too. Your heart races, you experience heart palpitations, you feel pressure in your chest as if you're choking, or your chest feels tight. While these feelings may indicate that something is wrong with your heart, they could alternatively mean that you are feeling intense anxiety and panic.
You may experience shortness of breath that feels very physical in nature. You might gasp for air or feel your airways constrict. When these are symptoms of panic attack, they are harmless. After the attack has subsided, your breathing will return to normal.
Feelings of Weakness
Several signs of panic attack seem similar to what you might experience if you had a medical condition that has caused weakness. You might feel dizzy or lightheaded. You might tremble uncontrollably. The feeling of weakness can be so profound that you fear you will fall before the attack is over.
The fear that comes with a panic attack can cause you great stomach discomfort. You might feel extreme nausea while the panic attack is going on, but it subsides when the attack is over.
Feelings of Body Temperature Changes
Several symptoms of a panic attack can make you feel physically ill. You might sweat or have chills as if you had a fever.
Often, people with panic attacks feel numbness and tingling in their hands and feet. These are physical symptoms that are generated by your nervous system in response to the fear you are feeling.
How to Distinguish a Panic Attack from a Heart Attack
Because a panic attack can have symptoms that feel purely physical, it's important to make sure that what you're experiencing is actually a panic attack. What you need to understand is that you may not be able to tell in that moment whether you are having a heart attack or a panic attack. When it happens the first time, you need to treat it like a medical emergency until you find out otherwise. An ER doctor can run tests to rule out heart attack or other physical ailments.
If you don't seek help at the time of the first attack, go in for a heart checkup as soon as possible. The results will give you a rough estimate of how likely it is that future attacks will require medical attention. Yet, you may never be able to know with 100% accuracy when you need to seek medical help during what you think is a panic attack.
The first step in overcoming panic attacks, then, is to learn how to deal with the possibility that you're having a heart attack. From there, you can take steps to improve your heart health to decrease the probability of having a medical emergency. Consequently, the only way to overcome panic attacks is to accept the possibility that you might miss a heart attack. Of course, you will try to avoid that, but you have to take the chance that you're right about having a panic attack if you want to learn to deal with it without emergency medical intervention.
What Brings on a Panic Attack?
The source of the fear behind a panic attack can be either obvious or unclear. In fact, you may have no warning at all that you're about to have a panic attack. Stressful situations can initiate panic attacks, but the attacks can also happen when life seems otherwise peaceful. Furthermore, you can push yourself into an attack if you anticipate that you'll have a panic attack. That anticipation leads to anxiety, which is a short step away from a full-blown panic attack for someone with panic disorder.
Evaluating Symptoms of Panic Attack
The doctor's first job is to rule out medical conditions that might cause the same symptoms. To do this, the doctor typically orders blood work, an EKG, and other tests that might show a physical connection. They take your medical history, asking if others in your family have suffered from medical conditions that the doctor knows could cause the symptoms. They listen to your heart and perform a complete physical examination to find any potential source of medical problems.
If all these results come back negative for medical conditions, the doctor will move on to conducting a mental health examination or refer you to a mental health professional for such an assessment. This evaluation is based on conversations between you and the person conducting the interview. They will ask you about the symptoms you experience and what situations or experiences precede the symptoms. Once the doctor or therapist determines that you have panic disorder, they should recommend a course of treatment to help you deal with or overcome the problem.
Treatments for Panic Attacks
The two main types of treatment for panic attacks are medication therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy. Medications can help alleviate the symptoms of a panic attack and may even help you avoid panic altogether. They may be taken regularly or as needed when the triggers that have caused your panic in the past are present. They may also be taken as the panic attack begins. The doctor will prescribe the medication to be taken safely and effectively in a way that they deem best for you.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is a therapy that consists of talking about the symptoms, triggers, and after-effects of your panic attacks, and devising ways to deal with them. Because they often have a genetic basis, you may not be able to prevent the attacks. However, with the therapist's help, you can reduce the symptoms and the stressors that seem to set off the attacks.
One of the most important things you can learn through cognitive behavioral therapy is that a panic attack typically comes and goes without causing you any harm at all. You also need to deeply understand that the attack will eventually end, and life will go back to the way it was before. Reminding yourself of this heartfelt realization can diminish your symptoms even while you are in the midst of a panic attack.
A part of cognitive behavior therapy is changing your way of thinking. Just as important, you practice the behaviors that come from your new perspective. This can take time, but the end result is that your panic attacks will be less frightening and more manageable if they don't end altogether.
Finding Help for the Symptoms of Panic Attack
If you do find out that what you are experiencing are panic attacks, the next step is to get help from a qualified professional. Your doctor may prescribe medications, but they'll likely suggest that you see a therapist for cognitive behavioral therapy as well.
You can decide for yourself who you will see for CBT. You need to talk to someone who is trained in this method and who understands panic attacks and how to treat them effectively. Paid licensed/certified counselors are available online at BetterHelp.com to help you where you are, at times that work best for your schedule.
As you explore the triggers and symptoms of panic attacks, you can learn to manage your symptoms. Your panic attacks may never completely go away, but when you know what to expect and what to do when they happen, you can live a more peaceful, productive life with less fear than you ever thought possible.