When the Body Panics: What a Panic Attack Feels Like

“I’m having a panic attack,” you might say when facing a stressful situation like a trip to the dentist. “Calm down before you have a panic attack,” you might say in jest to a friend. But are you having an actual panic attack, or are you simply experiencing anxiety than normal? Most people have heard of these attacks, but are unsure how to spot one. Spotting a panic attack and knowing what to do can ease the sufferer’s anxiety and shorten the episode. Today, we’ll discuss what a panic attack is, how it feels, what can trigger one, and more.


What Is a Panic Attack?

One difference between a panic attack and typical anxiety is that an attack is defined as a “sudden surge” of anxiety and fear. In other words, you might be fine one minute, and then a trigger sets off an episode. An example of a trigger prior to having a panic attack would be being in an elevator that was becoming increasingly crowded as it progressed up a building for a claustrophobic individual. Another example of a trigger for a panic attack could be the physical sensation of drinking too much coffee leading to a faulty belief system that a heart attack was imminent.

Panic attacks may not necessarily lead to the diagnosis of a panic disorder, and what caused an anxiety episode once may not cause one again. For example, a person who’s afraid of bees may panic when one chases him, but not during a visit to a botanical garden or museum exhibit on insects. On the other hand, someone with a deep-seated phobia can experience anxiety every time she is exposed to the phobic stimuli. If you had childhood trauma in an emergency room for instance, you may experience mild to moderate panic disorder every time you visit your doctor.

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How Do They Feel?

Many sufferers of panic disorder report an attack feels like they are; struggling to breathe, feel trapped, feel unable to escape from the trigger, and feel as if they are in a tunnel with some saying that episodes often feel like a major adrenaline rush or a heart attack. For instance, a person may sweat profusely or feel nauseated while in a panic. Sufferers often feel dizzy or detached, as if everything is happening far away. They may shake, scream, or cry out, but don’t depend on these as cues for every attack. Sufferers will sometimes try to “hold in” symptoms because they don’t want to lose control – especially if panic happens in public.

How Can You Help?

If you see someone having a panic attack, your first instinct may be to be to attempt to help. That’s good, but there is a specific way to do it. Do the following when dealing with panic attacks:

  • Stay calm. If you panic, his or her panic will worsen.
  • No sudden moves. Do not approach too quickly, touch the person without permission, or make excessive noise.
  • Encourage deep, slow breaths. It helps to breathe with the person, inhaling and exhaling on a specific count.
  • Ask what the person needs.
  • Stay quiet, and keep the surrounding environment quiet. If you are in public, ask bystanders to move away. Try to find a private or semi-private area, like a bathroom.
  • Stay positive. Say things like, “You’re doing great” or “You can get through this.” Do not shame or scold the person during or after the attack.

Seeking professional help for the management of panic attacks can be very helpful as it has been demonstrated that a combination of psychiatric and psychological care can be very helpful in the management of these symptoms.