Am I having a Panic Attack?

| Amanda Bloom, LCMHC

We all experience anxiety from time to time. Anxiety is a normal, healthy emotion that can serve a purpose. For example, if we are feeling anxious about an upcoming exam, it can evoke motivation to study and prepare for the exam or when we assess for danger such as looking both ways before crossing the street. It can motivate behavior and help us stay safe. Sometimes anxiety can present in the form of a panic attack or if you continue to have recurring panic attacks, it may be a mental health diagnosis called panic disorder, that can negatively impact your daily functioning.

What is a panic attack and how do I know if I am having one?

A panic attack is an abrupt surge of intense fear or intense discomfort that reaches a peak within a few minutes and has four or more of the following symptoms (listed below).  A panic attack can be utterly terrifying. You may feel that you are going crazy, losing control, having a heart attack or even dying. Some people may go to the hospital or call 911 because they don’t know it is a panic attack. Although, you may feel like you are dying, panic attacks are not actually life-threatening. Let me repeat that. Panic attacks can not kill you. However, due to the fact that panic attacks can resemble medical conditions such as a heart attack, if you are not sure what is causing your symptoms, it is not a bad idea to get evaluated by a healthcare provider. This may also provide you with additional relief and comfort knowing that you have been examined and cleared of any underlying medical condition. Panic attacks can occur in the context of an anxiety disorder as well as other mental disorders such as depressive disorders, PTSD and substance use disorders. 

Panic attacks can be expected or unexpected. This means you may be able to identify a specific situation or trigger for your panic attacks such as being in a crowded public place, driving, going to the mall, or flying. Unexpected panic attacks may feel like they come out of the blue with no warning, cue or trigger. They typically happen suddenly and without warning. You may experience panic attacks occasionally or they may occur more frequently. Panic attacks can present with variations, however, they usually last up to 10-15 minutes and peak with a few minutes.

Symptoms of a Panic Attack

According to DSM-5, a panic attack is characterized by four or more of the following symptoms:

  • Heart palpitations or accelerated heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Shortness of breath
  • A feeling of choking
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Nausea 
  • Abdominal distress
  • Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
  • Feelings of unreality (derealization) or being detached from oneself (depersonalization)
  • Fear of losing control or going crazy
  • Fear of dying
  • Sense of impending doom or danger
  • Numbness or tingling sensations 
  • Chills or hot flashes

If you repeatedly experience recurring panic attacks and an intense sense of fear about having another panic attack in the future, it may be a sign of panic disorder. This can lead you to avoid certain situations where you think a panic attack may occur. A doctor or mental health professional can diagnose a panic attack or panic disorder. 

Panic Attack v. “Anxiety Attack”

It is important to note that a panic attack and an anxiety attack are different. People often use these terms interchangeably believing they are synonymous, when they are not the same. If you don’t know which you are having it may impact your course of treatment. By understanding the difference, you can address your mental health issues more efficiently.

An anxiety attack is not an official clinical term and it is not mentioned anywhere in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition). It is a colloquial term that individuals who suffer from anxiety use to describe intense or extended periods of anxiety. An anxiety attack is less severe and less intense than a panic attack. It occurs gradually over time and can last over minutes, hours or days. 

How do I cope with panic attacks? 

If you are experiencing panic attacks, I’m sure you know how unpleasant they are and would like to feel more confident in your ability to manage them. Strategies to cope with panic attacks include utilizing mindfulness skills to acknowledge how you are feeling, accepting and tolerating the discomfort and remembering that it will soon pass. Remember to breathe slowly and deeply. You can implement relaxation techniques such as deep breathing exercises, meditation, guided visualization and progressive muscle relaxation. You can also work on challenging unhelpful thoughts that contribute to your symptoms of panic.  

Don’t be afraid to talk about your symptoms and to seek help from a mental health professional. You can get relief from your symptoms and understand how to manage your panic attacks more effectively! 

Today's the day to make a change.