What Does a Panic Attack Feel Like?

One of the biggest problems with panic attacks is that the symptoms are so close to various other health problems – most notably heart attacks.

Panic attacks are brought on by acute stress which then causes a number of physiological symptoms that don’t leave until the sufferer is able to calm down. If the patient mistakes these symptoms for a heart attack however, then they are only likely to find their situation worsens and the attack can become self-perpetuating.

In this article then, we will be asking what a panic attack feels like so that you are better able to identify the symptoms and take the best steps towards overcoming the problem and achieving a sense of calm.

The Sensation

So just what does a panic attack feel like?

The best way to imagine a panic attack is to think about the last time you had a real fight or flight response and could hear your heartbeat in your ears. Perhaps this was brought on by a mugger in the street, maybe it happened when you got into an argument with a sales assistant over returning your jeans, or maybe it happened when you had to give a speech at a conference. Either way, you will have noted the intense feelings associated with acute stress – you likely started to shake, you probably had butterflies and you will have heard your own heartbeat in your ears.

This response is designed to help us perform well in a physical confrontation but unfortunately it’s very rarely actually helpful these days. More likely, shaking like a leaf will only have undermined your point when you were arguing or made you forget your lines in your speech.

Either way, this is the feeling to zero in on when asking ‘what does a panic attack feel like’. Now imagine that sensation continuously getting worse, to the point where you’re hyperventilating, your chest feels tight and your heart is so loud you think it’s going to burst through your sternum. At the same time, the butterflies become a feeling of nausea and sickness and you’re filled with dread and foreboding. Likely, you’re also confused as you won’t know what is causing the problem. That’s what a panic attack feels like.

Symptoms of a Panic Attack

The precise symptoms of a panic attack actually vary from case to case and person to person. This is just the same as when you experience stress – it’s very rare for any two stressful days to feel the exact same and that’s because of difference in the situation, your reaction and your state to begin with which alter the overall chemical profile.

That said, common symptoms that you might experience include:

  • Trembling
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Hyperventilation
  • Shortness of breath
  • Muscle tension
  • Chest pain
  • Stomach ache
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Feelings of dread
  • ‘De-realization’
  • Pacing
  • Restlessness
  • Inability to stay still/go to sleep

In some cases, you might only feel ‘limited symptom panic attacks’ which are panic attacks where only one or two symptoms are present. What do panic attacks feel like with limited symptoms? Essentially the same but milder – and they commonly occur during the recovery stage.

The symptoms of panic attacks tend to last from 20 minutes to several hours and are not life threatening. They will subside on their own but only once you understand what is happening and are able to breathe and remain calm. This is why understanding the symptoms and knowing what they feel like is so important and so useful in this particular condition.

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