Panic attacks include a cluster of heightened physical symptoms, like a racing heartbeat, chest tightness, and intense feelings of dread.1 These attacks can feel frightening and confusing, especially if you haven’t experienced one before. In addition, they may leave you completely exhausted. Panic attacks sometimes have a specific trigger, but they can also appear randomly.
What Is a Panic Attack?
Panic attacks are sudden, intense feelings of terror that can occur anytime and without warning. In some cases, they happen at night while you’re asleep. Panic attack lengths vary, but the typical episode lasts about 5-20 minutes with the anxiety typically peaking within 10 minutes; however, in some cases, symptoms persist for several hours.1
Amber Petrozziello, LMHC, explains that “Much of anxiety and panic attacks are rooted in fear – fear of the unknown, of not being capable, of certain objects or places, or fear of people. During a panic attack, anxiety can affect us physically, with sweating, trembling, dizziness, rapid heartbeat, hyperventilating and difficulty breathing.”
Panic Attacks & Panic Disorder
Persistent panic attacks can lead to panic disorder. This anxiety condition entails frequent panic attacks coupled with the fear of future attacks. A panic disorder often results in people avoiding certain places or activities. Panic attacks can also be a key symptom in other types of anxiety. While anxiety is a common emotion, clinical anxiety disorders range from mildly distressing to life-threatening if left untreated.
Panic Attack Vs. Anxiety Attack
Panic and anxiety attack symptoms can overlap, but panic attacks are typically more sudden and are defined by a specific set of criteria. While anxiety symptoms are intense, they’re also short-lived. Anxiety attacks tend to occur gradually and include more prolonged symptoms like irritability, persistent worry, and poor concentration. Although there’s a difference, some people use the terms interchangeably. Both types of attacks can occur within various anxiety disorders.
Panic Attack Vs. Heart Attack
Due to the overlap of physical symptoms and fear that comes with a panic attack, people often mistake panic attacks for heart attacks. Though each condition is serious, a heart attack is a life-threatening situation that requires immediate medical attention. If you believe you or a loved one is having a heart attack, call 9-1-1.6
Can You Die From a Panic Attack?
The likelihood of dying from a panic attack is very low. Although the experience can feel scary and create a host of physical and mental health symptoms, they are rarely life-threatening. Of course, under rare circumstances, a panic attack could trigger some other issue that could result in death, but the panic attack would only be indirectly responsible.
Can You Pass Out From a Panic Attack?
There is a low risk of passing out during a panic attack. Passing out is usually caused by low blood pressure, but during a panic attack, your blood pressure rises higher.7 The panic may make you feel dizzy or woozy, so it is probably best to sit or lay down until symptoms pass.
Panic Attack Symptoms
Some symptoms of panic attacks may be stronger than others. Also, keep in mind that everyone experiences panic attacks differently. If you have recurrent attacks, you may notice that each attack has a separate set of symptoms.
Symptoms of a panic attack can include:3
- Heart palpitations
- Difficulty breathing
- Chest tightness or pain
- Sweating and increased body temperature
- Choking or smothering sensations
- Fears of losing control or going crazy
- Fears or thoughts of dying
- Intense paranoia
- Feeling weak or numb
What Does a Panic Attack Feel Like?
A panic attack can feel like a serious physical health condition like a heart attack. Some people may call an ambulance or admit into the emergency room due to the severity of their symptoms. Many people describe their attacks as feeling like they’re dying. There is often a pronounced sense of fear, discomfort, and powerlessness.
How Long Do Panic Attacks Last?
Even though they feel like they will last forever and never end, panic attacks tend to be short in duration. Many panic attacks will last fewer than 10 minutes. Having a panic attack that lasts longer than one hour is unlikely.6
What Causes Panic Attacks?
There isn’t a single cause for panic attacks or panic disorder. Instead, researchers propose that several variables, including genetics, personality temperament, and ongoing stressors, may play a role.4 For example, people with first-degree relatives with anxiety conditions may be genetically predispositioned to anxiety and panic attacks. Similarly, those who struggle with higher levels of perfectionism or control may experience more stress, which can lead to panic attacks.
Panic attacks can also coincide with specific mental health disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), generalized anxiety disorder, and social anxiety disorder. While these disorders do not inherently cause the attacks, other symptoms may exacerbate them.
Additionally, panic attacks can happen despite a lack of danger or any obvious, observable causes. Some people may only have one or two attacks in their lives. Others may have them more frequently.
How to Cope During a Panic Attack
When you’re overwhelmed in the moment, it may feel impossible to cope with a panic attack; however, there are strategies you can use to give yourself relief from both the emotional and physical symptoms, or to help someone else dealing with a panic attack. Knowing these strategies in advance can help you feel more prepared.
Here are nine coping techniques for dealing with panic attacks.
- Breathe deeply: Deep, intentional breathing can slow down your central nervous system and promote calmness and relaxation.5There are many types of breathwork you can try, including yogic breathing, coherent breathing, and 4-7-8 breathing.
- Remind yourself that it will pass: Remind yourself that your feelings and physical sensations will pass. You can adopt and repeat a mantra like, “This is uncomfortable, but it will end soon.” This can help you de-escalate.
- Ground yourself with a safe space: Imagine a positive, serene space that evokes peaceful feelings. Try to activate the five senses and think about what you see, hear, taste, feel, and smell. Immerse yourself in this space for as long as you need.
- Tell yourself positive affirmations: Focus on implementing healthy thoughts amid your anxiety. You might use statements like, “I am capable and worthy,” or, “I trust that I will be OK.” It can help to continue reciting these lines until the anxiety subsides.
- Close your eyes: If you feel particularly overwhelmed or sensitive to your current surroundings, consider closing your eyes. Turn off the lights and contain yourself in a quiet and calm environment.
- Seek support: If you are with others, ask if they will stay with you until the panic attack subsides. Ask for direct support if you need it. If you’re alone, consider calling or texting a trusted friend to let them know what’s going on.
- Touch something soothing and tangible: Ground yourself by holding onto a safe object like a stone, stuffed animal, or book. Remind yourself that you will be grounded back into reality soon.
- Limit stimulants and mood-altering substances: For the next several days, it may help to reduce or eliminate stimulants like caffeine, nicotine, or alcohol. These ingredients can exacerbate anxiety, even if you aren’t aware of it. Be mindful of the tendency to self-medicate, too. Even if a particular substance provides temporary relief, the body develops a tolerance to it. Ultimately, this can lead to more anxiety and substance use problems.
- Stay active: Try to get routine physical activity as often as possible. This can be especially important for calming yourself down after a panic attack. Even a brisk, 10-minute walk can make a significant difference in how you feel.
How to Prevent Panic Attacks
One of the best ways to prevent panic attacks is to lower your overall stress, tension, and anxiety. You can practice relaxation techniques, eat well, and get plenty of sleep. Speaking with a therapist and taking medications could help prevention as well.
Due to the nature of panic attacks and panic disorder, some symptoms will be unexpected and unpreventable. Working to reduce your fear of future attacks can improve outcomes as well.
Do I Have Panic Disorder?
Compared to other mental health conditions, panic disorder is a fairly simple and clearcut disorder. To qualify for the condition, the only criterion is to have panic attacks that are recurrent and unexpected. These attacks cannot be caused by a medical or substance use issue, and the attacks cannot be better explained by another mental health condition.
If you have ongoing panic attacks, you may want to speak to your doctor about panic disorder.
Treatment of Panic Attacks
If you feel like your panic attacks symptoms aren’t improving or they’re progressively getting worse, therapy can provide solutions and relief. CBT for panic disorder can offer specific suggestions for symptom management. In addition, a doctor or psychiatrist may recommend anxiety medication to help you relax. It’s important to talk to your doctor about how anxiety medication can affect you, and how to determine the best medication for you.
“Taking a look at your daily routine can be a helpful exercise in learning how your environment and habits contribute or exacerbate your anxiety,” says Petrozziello.
There isn’t an optimal time to seek professional treatment for panic disorder; however, most people benefit from finding a therapist early vs. suffering for months or years. The right provider can make a tremendous difference in how you feel. Consider starting your search through an online therapist directory. Reach out to providers with experience treating anxiety and panic attacks.
Final Thoughts Panic Attacks
Panic attacks can be scary, challenging, and frustrating, but having insight into symptoms and access to solutions is the key to feeling better. Moreover, you can learn how to manage your anxiety symptoms with help from a therapist. By practicing optimal stress management, you could reduce the likelihood of future attacks.