Panic attacks, what they are, what causes them, how to stop and prevent them:
Panic attacks can seem powerful, frightening, and like they are out of your control. Those who experience panic attacks quickly learn they are highly unpleasant and unnerving experiences.
What does a panic attack feel like?
Panic attacks can present a wide range of feelings, such as:
- A surge of overwhelming doom and gloom - that something terrible is about to occur and/or that you are in grave danger
- A strong feeling of trepidation and foreboding
- A strong urgency to get out, runaway, and escape from danger
- Looking pale
- Feeling flushed, hot flash
- Feeling cold, unusually chilly
- Confusion, difficulty thinking clearly
- Feeling like you are about to lose control, lose it
- Feeling like you might become uncontrollably hysterical
- Feeling faint, like you might pass out
- Trouble catching your breath, out of breath
- Trembling, shaking
- Upset stomach, nauseated
- Urgency to go to the washroom
- Depersonalization (feeling detached from reality, separate from one-self, separate from normal emotions)
- Derealization (feeling unreal, in a dream-like state)
- Feeling dizzy, lightheaded, unsteady, off balance
- Emotionally upset, distressed
- Feel like you might be going crazy
- Feel like you are about to freaking out
- Fearful thoughts that seem incessant
- Feel like there is a lump in your throat
- Feel like your legs are weak and may not support you
- Feel like you can’t calm yourself down
- Knot in the stomach, tight stomach
- Numbness, tingling sensations in any part of the body
- Panicky feeling
- Pins and needles feeling
- Pounding heart
- Racing heart
- Shooting pains in the chest, neck, shoulder, head, or face
- Uncontrollable sweating
- Feel like you might have to vomit
Panic attacks can range from mild to severe, from only one symptom to all of them, and can be sporadic, frequent, or persistent. All combinations and variations are common.
Panic attacks can affect each person differently because each body is somewhat chemically unique. Consequently, panic attacks vary from person to person in type, number, intensity, duration, and frequency. If your panic attacks don’t exactly match the description above, that doesn’t mean you don’t have panic attacks. It simply means that your body is responding to panic slightly differently.
Because there are many medical conditions that can cause panic attack like symptoms, such as the strong sensations and feelings associated with panic attacks, it’s wise to discuss your panic attacks with your doctor. If your doctor attributes your panic attacks to stress and anxiety, you can feel confident your doctor’s diagnosis is correct. Panic attacks, often referred to as Panic Disorder, is relatively easy to diagnose and isn’t easily confused with more serious medical conditions.
NOTE: The Symptoms Listing section in the support area of our website contains detailed information about most of the symptoms commonly associated with anxiety and panic. This information includes the sensations commonly experienced, whether it is an anxiety symptom or not, what causes them to occur, and what you can do to reduce and eventually eliminate them. Much of this information isn’t found elsewhere.
How long does a panic attack last?
Panic attacks can last from a few moments to many hours. The length of panic attack is often determined by how frightened a person is and how they react to the situation and/or their panic attack. The more reactive a person is, the longer the attack.
Are panic attacks serious?
Even though panic attacks can be powerful experiences, they aren’t harmful. Panic attacks are the same as anxiety attacks.
What are panic attacks?
Panic attacks are just episodes of high degree anxiety. For example, being nervous, such as before an important event, is low degree anxiety. Low degree anxiety is generally accompanied by mild symptoms, such as feeling nervous, butterflies in the stomach, and mild perspiration, to name a few.
High degree anxiety, however, will produce dramatic symptoms, such as those mentioned in the list above. The degree of anxiety generally determines the degree of accompanying symptoms. The more anxious you are, the more dramatic the symptoms.
So it’s not that panic is a bad thing, but that it’s a more dramatic response than being mildly worried or concerned.
What causes panic attacks?
Behaving in an apprehensive manner produces the physiological, psychological, and emotional state of anxiety. When we behave apprehensively (worried, fretful, concerned, afraid), the body activates the stress response, which secretes stress hormones into the bloodstream where they travel to targeted spots in the body to bring about specific changes that enhance the body’s ability to deal with danger. The stress response is often referred to as the fight or flight response because of how it equips the body to either fight with or flee from danger.
When we are mildly concerned (worried, afraid), the stress response produces a mild reaction in the body. When we are greatly concerned/worried/afraid, the stress response produces a dramatic reaction in the body. Since the stress response is directly proportional to the degree of being worried, panic attacks are generally the result of serious worry, concern, and fear.
So it is ongoing serious worry that generally causes panic attacks. These types of panic attacks are called ‘voluntary’ panic attacks: when our worry has activated a dramatic stress response reaction.
Moreover, persistently elevated stress can also cause panic attacks. These types of panic attacks are called ‘involuntary’ panic attacks, meaning that the body has involuntarily triggered an attack all by itself due to being overly stressed.
The most common form of panic attacks is the ‘voluntary’ type, with the ‘involuntary’ type being less common.
For more information about panic attacks and how to stop and prevent them, you can read Chapters 3, 4, 5, and 6 in the support area of our website.
What is panic disorder?
Most people will experience at least one panic attack in their lifetime. This is normal. Panic disorder occurs when high degree anxiety – panic – interferes with a normal lifestyle. In other words, when panic attacks cause a disruption to a normal lifestyle, it is categorizes as Panic Attack Disorder (PAD).
It’s important to keep in mind that Panic Attack Disorder should NOT be equated with having a medical, biological, chemical, or genetic condition. Panic Attack Disorder simply means you are having difficulty with panic attacks. Panic Attack Disorder is just a term used to describe someone who is struggling with panic attacks. IT is NOT a medical term.
While you may have been diagnosed as having Panic Attack Disorder, this just means you have overly anxious behaviors that cause episodes of high degree anxiety. It doesn’t mean you are somehow mentally deficient or have some serious mental illness.
A common cause of panic disorder is becoming afraid of the sensations and feelings of panic. Since panic is generally caused by worry and fear, worrying about and being afraid of panic attacks fuels panic attacks. In a sense, panic disorder occurs when we become afraid of the strong feelings of being afraid.
Visit our ‘anxiety disorder’ page for more information about anxiety disorder.
Do I have panic disorder?
People who regularly experience and struggle with panic attacks are said to have panic disorder. To give you a general idea if you would be considered to have panic disorder, you can take our Panic Attack Disorder test here.
How can I overcome panic attack disorder?
Anyone can overcome panic attack disorder. It’s just a matter of learning more about panic and how you can control it rather than it controlling you.You can learn more about this in the recovery support area of our website. Our support area contains a wealth of self-help information on how to resolve anxiety disorder, including panic attacks. Many find it to be their “one stop” destination for anxiety disorder help.
For now, here are some simple tips to help stop and eliminate panic attacks:
- Reduce your stress and give your body time to respond.
- Relax breath. This will help shut off the stress response and its changes.
- Calm yourself down. Calming yourself down will bring an end to panic…in time.
- Relax your body as much as you can. Relaxing stops the stress response.
- Go for a walk. Leisure walking can shut of the stress response.
- Remember that panic attacks aren’t harmful. They are just strong reactions to anxiety, worry, and fear.
- Remember, panic attacks ALWAYS end. The more you calm yourself down, the faster they end.
- The most important is learning to stop scaring yourself with worry. Worry is the number one cause of panic attacks. Containing your worry – which we explain in the Recovery Support area – is a great way to eliminate problematic worry and panic attacks.
Yes, panic attacks can feel awful, intense, and threatening. But they aren’t harmful and generally pass when the body calms down. And yes, they can range in number, intensity, and frequency with each person experiencing a unique set of panic attack symptoms. But panic attacks and their symptoms can be overcome for good by getting the right information, help, and support. We provide more detailed information in the Recovery Support area of our website.
The combination of good self-help information and working with an experienced anxiety disorder coach, counselor, or therapist is the most effective way to address anxiety disorder and its many symptoms. Until the core causes of anxiety are addressed - the underlying factors that motivate apprehensive behavior - a struggle with anxiety disorder can return again and again. Identifying and successfully addressing anxiety's underlying factors is the best way to overcome problematic anxiety.
For more information about our Anxiety Counseling option; our Available Anxiety Therapists; to Book An Appointment with one of our anxiety therapists; common Anxiety Signs and Symptoms; common Anxiety Attack Symptoms; the symptoms of panic attack disorder; anxiety Recovery Support area; information about Anxiety; and our Anxiety 101 section; or click on the appropriate link or graphic below:
Authors: Jim Folk, Marilyn Folk, BScN. Last updated October 9, 2018.