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How Do I Know if I'm Having a Panic Attack?

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Panic attacks can be horrifying and confounding, especially for those who are experiencing one for the first time or don’t fully understand these mind-boggling cognitive events.

The American Psychological Association describes a panic attack as a sudden wave of overwhelming fear that comes without warning and without any obvious reason.

In a classic panic attack, a person is going about their normal daily activities when they suddenly experience a deep feeling of fear, anxiety or impending doom. These attacks carry with them significant physical symptoms that may make the person feel as if they are having a heart attack or other medical emergency.

The anxiety over these physical symptoms begets more anxiety, creating a feeling far worse than just ordinary stress. Panic attacks are not a dangerous medical event, but they can certainly feel like one.

People who have regular or frequent panic attacks may have a type of anxiety disorder known as panic disorder. But an isolated panic attack can happen to anyone, even without a panic disorder diagnosis.

What a panic attack feels like

Most of us know what it feels like to be stressed. You might be more irritable or anxious than usual and the burdens of everyday life may feel a bit heavier than normal.

Panic attacks create a far more intense feeling than those that arise out of the normal stressors of life. Acute fear is a hallmark indication. The psychological association says other symptoms of a panic attack include:

  • racing heartbeat
  • difficulty breathing, feeling as though you "can't get enough air"
  • terror that is almost paralyzing
  • dizziness, lightheadedness or nausea
  • trembling, sweating, shaking
  • choking, chest pains
  • hot flashes, or sudden chills
  • tingling in fingers or toes ("pins and needles")
  • fear that you're going to go crazy or are about to die

They can be brought on by major life stress, but they also can occur when there is no clear danger or trigger. They can even happen when you are asleep. Most panic attack last between five and 20 minutes.

Panic attack or heart attack?

Chest pain, heart palpitations and shortness of breath are symptoms of both heart attacks and panic attacks. So, how can you tell the difference?

According to the American Heart Association, heart attacks can be sudden and intense, but most start slowly, with chest discomfort that gradually worsens to severe pain over a few minutes. These episodes might come and go several times before the actual heart attack occurs. A person having a heart attack often describes extreme chest pressure, as if an elephant is sitting on their chest.

Conversely, panic attacks come on quickly and usually reach peak intensity in 10 minutes or less. Chest pain associated with a panic attack is often described as sharp or stabbing and is

usually confined to the mid-chest area, while the pain of a heart attack commonly radiates toward the left arm or jaw.

It’s important to know that both psychologists and doctors agree that you shouldn’t simply assume you’re having a panic attack if you have sudden chest pain. It’s best to err on the side of caution and quickly seek medical attention, especially if this is your first experience with any such symptoms.

Panic disorder

Many people experience panic attacks. Research indicates that every year more than 10% of Americans have one. People of all ages have them.

Experts say there probably isn’t any reason to be concerned if you have had one or two panic attacks. However, if they become frequent you may have a condition called panic disorder.

The National Institute of Mental Health estimates 4.7% of U.S. adults experience panic disorder at some point in their lives. Women are twice as likely as men to develop the condition.

The key symptom of panic disorder is the persistent fear of having future panic attacks.

Scientists do not know exactly what causes panic disorder, but there could be a genetic component. Some people may simply develop the disorder after experiencing a significant life change, such as having a child or starting a new job.

The good news is that panic disorder is highly treatable with psychotherapy and medications, either singly or in combination. Once treated, panic disorder doesn't lead to any long-term complications.

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