Am I Having a Panic Attack? What It Feels Like

Updated on January 10, 2019
Layne Holmes profile image

Layne enjoys sharing advice on life events and advocates for healthy stress management and personal growth.

How to Survive Panic Attacks
How to Survive Panic Attacks | Source

My First Panic Attack Happened at Age 31

Have you had a panic attack or are you experiencing one now? If you are currently experiencing a panic attack, seek professional help immediately or skip below to read about my coping/grounding techniques to get through it.

What Do Panic Attacks Feel Like?

I had my first panic attack when I was 31 and it was no joke. I used to think that panic attacks were just excuses for dealing with severe stress. I thought I was used to stress and could handle stress. Then one day I had a panic attack for apparently no reason. This is what it experienced:

  • Detachment: Suddenly feeling out-of-place in the current environment, as though in a fish bowl or under a magnifying glass.
  • Paranoia: A feeling like I would lose control at any moment.
  • Anxiety: A general anxious "impulse" throughout the body.
  • Physical Change: My heart rate increased and I felt as though I couldn't take full breaths or get enough oxygen (different from hyperventilating). I started to sweat (you may feel warm or cold).
  • Panic: I felt as though something bad was going to happen.
  • Socially Phobic: I wanted to get away from everyone because the stimulus around me was overwhelming.

This was my experience, but there are also other common panic attack symptoms that affect sufferers, such as:

Common Panic Attack Symptoms

  • difficulty breathing (hyperventilation or poor oxygenation)
  • tachycardia (racing heart)
  • chest pain
  • detachment
  • nausea
  • dizziness or vertigo
  • hot, cold, or sweating
  • fear of losing control

What Causes Panic Attacks?
What Causes Panic Attacks? | Source

What Causes Panic Attacks?

Panic attacks can be caused by a number of things. For me, I have only had two in my life. Some individuals only experience a couple without further episodes, and other individuals suffer from panic disorder.

Panic disorder defines a chronic condition that starts to affect everyday life. An individual may begin to experience anticipatory anxiety (a fear of fear or future panic attacks) and phobic avoidance (avoiding places that may trigger the attack). In worse case scenarios, an individual may develop agoraphobia—a fear and avoidance of situations that may trigger and entrap an individual in a panic attack without room for escape—public places such as concerts, work events, airplanes, etc.

Panic attacks may be caused by substances, medical conditions, and life events:

Substances

Caffeine and stimulants may trigger panic attacks due to their effect on the nervous system, as can certain recreational drugs—creating a high and a feeling of loss of control.

Medical Conditions

It's important to rule out certain medical conditions that may trigger a panic attack. These conditions include: heart disease, asthma and similar respiratory issues, substance withdrawal, irritable bowel, hyperthyroidism, and tumors of the adrenals (hormone-secreting glands).

Trauma

Trauma often triggers panic attacks and even worse, reoccurring panic attacks from PTSD. If your stress threshold is extremely high and you are sleep-deprived, for example, you are more susceptible to a panic attack. If you are a survivor of assault or have witnessed a traumatic event, you may experience recurring panic attacks or develop panic disorder. It's important to receive treatment if this is the case.

When It's Serious

Seek proper treatment if you are experiencing a panic attack. If you are currently under someone's care, follow their protocol, including notifying appropriate parties, taking prescribed medication, and following proper treatment as directed.

Use your mind to regain control.
Use your mind to regain control. | Source

How to Handle a Panic Attack

This advice is based on how I survived my panic attacks. I had two panic attacks within a 6-month period. I almost experienced a 3rd a few months ago, but was able to calm my mind. I could not identify the cause of the panic attack except from past trauma—likely being triggered and reminded of the death of a family member.

When you are riding out a panic attack, it is important to identify the trigger during or after. Both of mine lasted roughly 30-40 minutes. Here's how I survived it:

  1. Acknowledge It: First, you must acknowledge that you are about to have a panic attack. You can usually feel it coming on. Your environment starts to "look" and "feel" a little different, as though you are in a bubble. You start to feel vulnerable. This is right before the panic sets in. Acknowledge what is happening—this is extremely important and the primary step.
  2. Find a Safe Place: Find a place to sit down or something to lean up against. If you are shopping, leave your finds and look for a safe place to sit (a private bench or lean against the wall in a large bathroom stall). If you are in a public space, make sure you can touch a solid structure—restaurant table, ledge to lean on, etc. It is important that you TOUCH something to prevent the out-of-body sensation.
  3. Contact Someone You Trust: If you are alone like I was during both events, consider messaging a friend. I kept my head down during one attack but was able to tell a trusted friend what was happening. Just hearing them respond to me in a normal, relaxed tone was helpful. You do, in fact, feel dysphoric sometimes when talking to anyone during an attack, so make sure to message someone you trust. This helps more than trying to have a conversation with someone in-person since stimulus can be intense.
  4. Tell Yourself the Truth: During my first panic attack, I felt like I couldn't breathe. I thought I was dying. I felt my heart rate pounding and I assumed I wasn't getting proper oxygenation. Use your mind to control your body—tell yourself, "Your breathing is normal, it just feels weird right now," or "I am not having a heart attack, my body is just anxious." Remind yourself that it will pass. (If you do have a heart condition, absolutely rule out a heart event!)
  5. Find a Grounding Activity: One thing that really works for me—nausea aside—is eating a bland snack. I literally stare into my food and really get present in the task. The whole point of this is feeling grounded in the body. By focusing on a grounding task, you get "back to earth." This may also work by putting something in your mouth, like a healthy ginger chew or a lozenge. Turn your focus to this sensation.
  6. Don't Move Until It Passes: Do not attempt to move until the attack passes. When I almost had my 3rd panic attack, the individual I was with asked if I wanted to go to the bathroom. This was in a crowded place with tons of people I didn't know. I knew this would propel my panic even further and decided to stay in one place and focus on my breathing. The attack never amounted to anything.
  7. Turn to Your Body: Continue to breathe—focus on the breath—and consider using a "twitch" on yourself. This is a technique that is used in veterinary medicine, where you pinch a certain area of your body to distract from an impending sensation (like a vaccination or blood draw). Consider finding an acupressure point on your body. I like to press between my thumb and pointer finger and hold onto the webbing.

Hopefully, with the above tips, you will have some luck surviving. Know that you are not alone, and really focus on detecting what is triggering your problems. It's often environment or life events.

Find out what coping methods work best for you.
Find out what coping methods work best for you. | Source

Additional Tips for Dealing With Panic Attacks

You may also want to consider some other solutions to help reduce panic attacks:

  • Biofeedback or Meditation: Learn to control your vitals with your mind. That means lowering your blood pressure and heart rate via mindfulness.
  • Yoga: Yoga teaches us to pay attention to the way our breath flows in our body and helps to reduce stress.
  • Worry stones: You can purchase worry stones or crystals—that is, tumbled stones that can be held in the palm. Each stone serves a different purpose, so find one particular to you. Banded amethyst is good for overcoming addiction, malachite is good for absorbing negative energy, and black obsidian is a great grounding stone.
  • Reduce the substances: Cut the caffeine (coffee, tea, mate) to prevent your sympathetic nervous system from being hypercharged. Also, stop drinking heavily. You may think that alcohol can help your anxiety, but it has the opposite effect. It depletes your body (especially when you sleep) of essential neurochemical processes and actually induces anxiety the following day—especially if you have a hangover.
  • See a counselor: Talking to someone, a medical professional, is a great way to find relief. They may also recommend medications to help you through in severe cases. Some doctors may encourage you to try natural alternatives like CBD (no THC), valerian root tea, and other natural anti-anxiety supplements. Never try anything new without doing your research and talking to your doctor.
  • Adequate sleep: We all know sleep is necessary. Sleep deprivation severely messes up the delicate balance of neurotransmitters in the brain which are essential for ultimate wellbeing. Make sure you get your sleep!
  • Change your environment: If it is your job that is triggering anxiety, your relationship, or your living environment, it's time for a change. We are a product of our environment, and stress and anxiety proliferate in toxic atmospheres. Put yourself first and focus on making a long-term goal to remove the negative aspects in your life that may be triggering the event.

Your wellness and your mental health is worth it. Invest in your personal wellbeing. Anxiety is no joke, and I feel for anyone who has experienced a panic attack in their lifetime. It's time to take a stand and help yourself. You don't have to suffer alone.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Layne Holmes

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      • Layne Holmes profile imageAUTHOR

        Layne Holmes 

        5 weeks ago from Bend, Oregon

        Hi Denise, Thanks for sharing. Identifying the triggers is crucial . . . I still haven't figure out what triggered mine. One occurred at home while I was on my computer, the other when I was traveling solo in a beautiful area, the last almost occurred at a small concert I had been looking forward to for ages. Luckily, I caught myself before the third one took over. I'm glad that you are able to diffuse yours . . . it's hard for non-sufferers to know how intense the sensations and feelings are. Be well.

      • denise.w.anderson profile image

        Denise W Anderson 

        5 weeks ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

        Panic attacks were my first introduction to my General Anxiety Disorder. I ended up in the hospital with several of them, thinking that I was having a heart attack or asthma attack. Eventually I was diagnosed with asthma, but it worsens immensely with stress. Counseling helped. I went through bio feedback sessions where I was hooked up to sound that would worsen with tension and lessen with relaxation. During one stint in the Mental Health Unit, I learned how to identify my triggers, and ward off an attack with deep breathing and relaxation. Now, for the most part, I am able to recognize the wave before it overtakes me and take steps to diffuse it.

      • Ellison Hartley profile image

        Ellison Hartley 

        5 weeks ago from Maryland, USA

        I agree! Meditation is a big help. It is a really scary feeling, that I'm hoping one day that I won't have any more!

      • Layne Holmes profile imageAUTHOR

        Layne Holmes 

        5 weeks ago from Bend, Oregon

        Ellison, thanks for the input. Sorry to hear you get panic attacks as well. I never knew until I finally had one . . . I thought it just meant extreme stress which I always managed fine. Panic attacks are a whole different game! Support, like you said, is totally critical. I also think coaching ourselves through it can help a lot—that's why I'm a big fan of biofeedback and meditation.

      • Ellison Hartley profile image

        Ellison Hartley 

        5 weeks ago from Maryland, USA

        This is a really great article. I suffer from panic attacks, so I understand how awful it is. I think this article is especially good to hopefully help those who don't get them understand what we are going through and be more supportive.

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