Panic Attacks: What are they? How can I tell if I am having one?

Written by Samantha Wall, LCSW


Panic attacks, this term is another one people use without completely understanding the severity of the experience. I have heard countless times, “Oh my gosh, I just had a panic attack because…” when in reality, that person just was feeling more anxious than ‘normal.’ I am going to talk about panic attacks in three parts. First I will talk about what a panic attack is, second I will discuss how you can tell if you are having one, and finally, for my next blog post I will discuss basic techniques you can use to manage a panic attack.


What is a panic attack and how does it differ from anxiety attacks? 

A panic attack is defined as “a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause” ( This is when your body and brain go past the window of tolerance and into hyper-arousal with no real danger or apparent cause. (See last blog for more information about your window of tolerance and hyper-arousal). Research shows that when you are experiencing a panic attack, your body experiences the ‘fight or flight’ response. Let’s say you were running from a bear, your body would react instinctively and go into hyper-arousal. Your heart rate and breathing would increase and prepare you for a life threatening situation. The hard part about panic attacks is, you are not really being chased by a bear and there is no ‘real’ danger or apparent cause for hyper-arousal at that moment. This is what makes them difficult to understand and manage because we usually want to have a reason for why they are happening. Causes of panic attacks are unknown, and there are factors that play a role in panic attacks such as genetics, major stress, and changes in brain function. Many people will experience one or two panic attacks in their lifetime and the problem can ‘go away’ when a stressful situation ends. When panic attacks become recurrent they often are paired with anxiety/fear about additional panic attacks. When you start experiencing them multiple times and/or have anxiety and fear about another one, this is when you need to reach out to professionals for help and support! 

A panic attack differs from an anxiety attack due to the fear of dying or losing control and a sense of detachment from the world or oneself. This means anxiety attacks and panic attacks feel very similar in many other ways, such as fear and physical symptoms (listed below). Panic attacks are also recognized in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) and organized into different categories like expected or unexpected. Anxiety attacks are not recognized in the DSM-5, so these symptoms are more open to interpretation and categorized under different anxiety disorders. 


Other differences between anxiety and panic attacks:

  • Anxiety is typically related to a perceived stress or threat, where panic attacks do not always occur as a result of a perceived stress or threat. 
  • Anxiety can build and include mild, moderate, or severe symptoms, where panic attack symptoms are severe and disruptive. 
  • During panic attacks, our autonomous fight/flight response takes over. 
  • Physical symptoms are more intense in panic attacks. 
  • Panic attacks come on abruptly, where anxiety can build gradually. 

This article offers a more in depth discussion about the differences between anxiety and panic attacks: 


Symptoms of Panic attacks: How can I tell I am having a panic attack?

Panic attack symptoms include (  

  • Fear of loss of control or death
  • Sense of impending doom or danger
  • Rapid, pounding heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Shortness of breath or tightness in your throat and chest
  • Chills
  • Hot flashes
  • Nausea
  • Abdominal cramping
  • Chest pain
  • Headache
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness or faintness
  • Numbness or tingling sensation
  • Feeling of unreality or detachment
  • Chest pain or discomfort

The symptoms listed above usually last for about 10 to 20 minutes, but can last longer. Panic attacks are categorized by experiencing more physical symptoms due to the take over of the autonomous fight or flight responses. Panic attacks do look different from person to person and the symptoms listed above are just the common ones. If you experience other symptoms, this does not mean you are not having a panic attack. If you have questions about your personal symptoms or struggles, I encourage you to seek professional support with a mental health professional and they can give you a specific diagnosis.


Have a question you want Sam to answer? Comment it below!

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