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March 19, 2019

Here’s what a panic attack feels like

Mental Health Anxiety

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Your body has a built-in alarm system, using physical sensations to signal the presence of serious health threats. For the most part, these signals effectively provide the red flags that indicate a need for a person to go to the emergency room. For example, intense chest discomfort accompanied by arm pain can be indicators of a heart attack, which may motivate a person to make a life-saving 911 call.

Sign of a panic attack

But what happens when the body’s alarm system suddenly misfires without the presence of an actual physical health emergency? When a panic attack strikes, it can feel like a crisis—not just mentally, but physically, with symptoms including:

• Tingling or numbness in the hands
• Feeling weak, faint, or dizzy
• Pounding, racing heart
• Feeling of terror and impending doom
• Chills and/or excess sweating
• Chest pain
• Hyperventilation
• A sense of “losing control”

What does a panic attack feel like?

People who regularly experience episodes of panic often struggle to articulate just how terrifying these attacks can truly be. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, a person having a panic attack may describe the experience like this:

“One day, without any warning or reason, a feeling of terrible anxiety came crashing down on me. I felt like I couldn’t get enough air, no matter how hard I breathed. My heart was pounding out of my chest, and I thought I might die. I was sweating and felt dizzy. I felt like I had no control over these feelings and like I was drowning and couldn’t think straight.

When should you seek medical attention?

Because the symptoms experienced during these events are so intense, they’re often confused for heart attacks, strokes, or seizures. For this reason, it’s important to immediately seek the opinion of a medical professional to rule out any conditions that require emergency care. If a doctor concludes the symptoms are a result of a panic attack, they can then provide the best course of action for treatment. This can mean different things for different people, ranging from talk therapy, to cognitive behavioral therapy, to medication, to adopting a service animal.

Certain circumstances and lifestyles can be incubators for panic attacks. Inactivity, drinking too much coffee or alcohol, and lack of sufficient sleep can all set the groundwork for a panic attack. These behaviors, multiplied by high levels of stress, can lead to a number of physical and mental health issues. Eliminating triggers that lead to feelings of panic and then assessing daily anxiety levels can help a person better understand whether or not their episodes are panic related. For example, if eliminating caffeine and increasing daily exercise levels minimizes these events, then it’s likely a panic attack was the cause of discomfort.


If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, the following hotlines are available for 24/7 support:

Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
Panic Attack Hotline: 1-866-307-4205
National Alliance on Mental Illness: 1-800-950-6264
Crisis Text Line: Text CONNECT to 741741

This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The information on this web site is for general information purposes only. Always seek the advice of your physician or health care provider on any matters relating to your health.

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