The butterflies in the tummy before an interview, the pounding heart and clammy hands before an exam or important presentation – we all know what fear and anxiety feel like. And it’s perfectly normal to feel this way. These physiological changes are part of our body’s fight or flight response and help us respond to some danger, threat, or challenging situation. However, a panic attack is a different ball game.
During a panic attack, you get deluged by an overwhelming wave of fear that is debilitating and paralyzing in its intensity. Another characteristic of a panic attack is that it can strike unexpectedly, out of the blue. And there may be no obvious reason for an attack – it can even occur while you’re asleep.1 Some people develop a condition called panic disorder where they frequently experience panic attacks. Here’s a look at some signs which could indicate that you’re having a panic attack.
What Does A Panic Attack Feel Like?
Panic attacks usually happen suddenly, without warning, and the level of fear that you experience is disproportionate to the situation that you’re in. The symptoms of an attack generally peak within 10 minutes and an attack mostly ends within 20–30 minutes. However, sometimes, you can get repeated attacks and this can last for a while.
Here are some signs that point to a panic attack:
- You may feel paralyzed by terror.
- You may get cold or hot flashes, or start sweating.
- You may get short of breath or hyperventilate.
- You may feel like your heart’s racing (heart palpitations).
- You may experience pain or discomfort in your chest.
- You may feel detached from your surroundings or unreal.
- You may feel nauseous or get an upset stomach.
- You may find yourself shaking or trembling.
- You may feel like you’re choking.
- You may feel light-headed, dizzy, or faint.
- You may get a tingling sensation in your fingers or toes or feel like they’re going numb.
- You may feel like you’re dying, going crazy, or losing control.2 3
How Do You Know If You Have Panic Disorder?
Did you know that about 1 in 75 people suffers from panic disorder?4 If you frequently experience unexpected panic attacks that aren’t associated with a specific situation and constantly worry about getting a panic attack, you might be diagnosed with panic disorder. This is quite unlike a phobia, where you experience a panic attack when faced with a specific thing or situation which triggers fear. People with panic disorder also change their behavior due to panic attacks – for instance, they might avoid places where they previously experienced attacks.5 6
Panic Disorder And Agoraphobic Symptoms
Agoraphobia, a condition where you’re afraid of being in a place where it’s difficult to escape or get help if things go wrong, is associated with panic disorder. Experts believe that a fear of having a panic attack in a place where escape or help might not be possible could lead you to start avoiding crowded places like sports arenas or shopping malls. In severe cases, you might feel safe only at home.7 8
Medical Conditions With Symptoms Similar To A Panic Attack
Certain medical conditions like heart disease, breathing disorders, and thyroid problems can cause many of the symptoms seen in panic attacks. For instance, difficulty breathing, palpitations, pain in the chest are common signs of a heart attack. In fact, it can often seem like you’re having a heart attack when a panic attack strikes.
To be safe, if you have been experiencing the symptoms listed above, check in with your doctor and rule out the possibility of other medical conditions as well. These include:
- Mitral valve prolapse, a condition where a valve in the heart doesn’t function properly
- Disorders like postural orthostatic tachycardic syndrome and paroxysmal atrial tachycardia where there are abnormalities in your heartbeat
- An overactive thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism)
- Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia)
- A tumor in the adrenal glands
- Withdrawal from a medication9 10
|↑1, ↑3, ↑4||Answers to Your Questions about Panic Disorder. American Psychological Association.|
|↑2, ↑6, ↑8, ↑9||Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder. Helpguide.|
|↑5||Panic disorder – Diagnosis. National Health Service.|
|↑7||Panic disorder – Complications. National Health Service.|
|↑10||Panic disorder. National Health Service.|