“If you’ve had a panic attack, you know it.” We’ve heard this bit of wisdom before. But it’s easy to mistake panic attack symptoms for something else – even, in some cases, a heart attack, stroke or “going crazy.”
Whether you suspect a panic attack or something more imminently harmful, do see your doctor the first time. There could be a physical cause. But if you’re curious about panic attack symptoms and wonder if you’re “normal,” here’s what many people experience:
Heart palpitations/quickened heartbeat/skipped heartbeats.
These are among the most commonly reported symptoms of a panic attack. The reason? Adrenaline. When you panic, adrenaline is pumped out at a fast rate. The adrenaline causes your heart to beat faster in order to allow you to run if the danger is real/imminent.
Please note this is NOT physically harmful to you if you do not have an underlying heart condition. It is your body’s normal response to a feeling of fear or danger. Believe it or not, your body thinks it’s trying to help, not hurt you.
Shallow, quick breathing.
This is another of your body’s safety mechanisms. The body can not tell the difference between real (i.e., a tiger standing in front of you) and imagined (fear of a panic attack) danger. It is trying to get you ready to flee the situation if need be. So it produces quicker spurts of oxygen into the body.
This is another very common panic attack symptom. It may or may not be caused by shallow breathing (see above).
This is a combination of adrenaline and generalized fear.
A feeling of choking or of smothering.
The throat may feel tighter during a panic attack due to muscles tightening up. This may make you feel as if you’re choking even though you’re not. Simple rule of thumb: if you’re able to speak, there is air getting into and going out of your airway.
Your palms and forehead and face are usually the places you’ll feel sweat break out.
A feeling that you’re literally going crazy.
You may feel that you’re losing your mind and that you may suddenly do something “crazy” in response. Generally, this does not actually happen during a panic attack.
A feeling of impending doom.
The mechanism behind this is little understood, but a generalized feeling of doom is a frequently felt effect during panic attacks.
A feeling that you’re genuinely dying.
This is not surprising. You’re undergoing a series of physical symptoms that are frightening and seem to come out of nowhere. Many, many panic attack sufferers report a fear of dying during the panic attack. (See below for a few words about that.)
Nausea accompanies dizziness for many people. It can also be a symptom of fear in general.
A sense of unreality.
You may feel you’re “outside yourself,” watching what’s going on. Or you may feel that people are talking more loudly than usual and that colors are brighter, in a sort of fish-eye lens way. You may also feel as though objects are farther away or closer than you logically know they should be.
Numbness or tingling.
You will usually feel this in your fingers. Some panic attack sufferers feel numbness and tingling on the face, the arms and/or legs as well.
Flushing or chills.
Your body temperature may vacillate between chills and bursts of warmth, especially on your face.
Are These Symptoms Dangerous?
In general, no, and this is important to remember while you’re having a panic attack.
Panic attacks don’t kill and they don’t cause permanent injury. It may feel like your heart is about to stop or like you’re literally dying. But it won’t and you’re not.
In fact, the single worst thing you’re fearing during a panic attack is the fear itself. Being afraid of the symptoms causes you to panic more, which causes more physiological changes – continued quick, shallow breathing; more adrenaline output; etc.
Will I Faint During a Panic Attack? Will the Attack Last Forever?
Fainting during a panic attack is very, very unlikely and very, very rare. You probably won’t faint during a panic attack.
You may have had the experience of running away from the situation while you’re having a panic attack. After you’ve gone to what you perceive to be a safer location, your panic attack goes away.
It is important to know that the panic attack would have eventually resolved anyway. It went away faster due to your perception that you were going some place “safer,” but no panic attack lasts forever. Period.
Can I ‘Train Myself Out Of’ Panic Attacks?
Yes, over time, most people can eliminate or at least minimize the amount and/or severity of their panic attacks. Keeping the above facts in mind will be a huge help to you. You will reduce your fear of the panic attacks themselves and hence, over time, reduce them.
There are many great books out there (see a review of this one) that go into the mechanics of a panic attack and specifically address how to minimize or eliminate them. Also read the other articles on this site, which specifically address making your condition better.
You’re not alone. There’s help out there — but there’s also help in there: within yourself. Panic attacks are not uncommon. You’re not weird, you’re not “different” and you’re not going crazy. You’re a panic attack sufferer – and there is help, and hope.