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Are You Having a Panic Attack? Ways to Know If You Are

If you have ever had a panic attack, you know how scary and sudden they can be.  If you have never had one, you might not know what is happening if a panic attack comes on unexpectedly.  It could be the most frightening experience of your life, but it doesn’t have to be.  Armed with knowledge about what happens during a panic attack and why it happens, it may be less detrimental. You can also use this knowledge to prepare for a potential future panic attack, and make a plan for what to do if it happens again.

What Are Panic Attacks

During a panic attack, your blood is coursing with adrenaline.  Your fight or flight response is at its peak.  This means that your body and mind are responding to your environment as if a threat is imminent.  However, this is usually not the case.  Panic attack occur in times of great physical or emotional stress, and are due to hormonal imbalances, lack of sleep, and use of drugs or alcohol. They have been described as a walking nightmare, and rightfully so.  Experiencing a panic attack is the metaphysical equivalent of staring down an apex predator.  Your body and mind focus only on escape, but there is usually no physical threat.

Panic Attack Symptoms

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, a panic attack includes at least four of the following symptoms:

  • racing heart or palpitations
  • sweating
  • trembling or shaking
  • shortness of breath/hyperventilating
  • chest pain or discomfort
  • feeling sick to your stomach/nausea
  • dizziness, unsteadiness or faintness
  • feeling feverish or chills
  • numbness or tingling sensation
  • feelings of being outside of reality
  • detachment from the self
  • feelings of losing control or going crazy
  • fear of dying

While any one of these symptoms may be disconcerting on it’s own, experiencing four or more of them could be absolutely terrifying in the moment.  No wonder many people mistake panic attacks for heart attacks and other major illnesses.

How To Know For Sure

While in the middle of a panic attack, especially if you have never had one before, it can seem impossible to know what is going on.  Many people call 911 during their first panic attack or go to the emergency room because they fear they are dying.  If you find yourself having any one of the above symptoms, it is essential to ask yourself what your other symptoms are.  Take stock of your physical and emotional sensations.  Do you have any symptoms of any other major illnesses, like a heart attack or stroke?  If so, call 911.  If not, you may still be asking yourself what is going on. While it may feel like you’re dying, a panic attack won’t kill you, so take a deep breath.  Having trouble thinking?  Try writing your symptoms down or saying them out loud.  This may help to clarify the situation.  You may want to call your doctor or talk to a friend about what is going on.  They may be able to help you figure out what is happening.  Hopefully, if you have tried some of these things, you have calmed down a bit and realized what has happened.  Generally, panic attacks only last 10-15 minutes, so try waiting out your symptoms.  If they pass, you have most likely had a panic attack and can start to relax.

What To Do Now

If you experience any panic attack symptoms that pass in about 15 minutes, call your doctor.  While experiencing a single panic attack is not the end of the world, it still warrants attention. Especially if your experience has left you wondering what happened to you.  Your doctor can recommend ways to prevent further attacks and coping mechanisms if it occurs again.  Your doctor may recommend medications that help with anxiety.  There are also several online resources you can use if you think you’ve had a panic attack, including Freedom from Fear, the National institute of Mental Health, and the National Mental Health Association.

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