What Does a Panic Attack Feel Like? 

Many people who struggle with panic attacks might feel as though they have no control over them. However, once we know generally how and why panic attacks occur, we can be empowered to have a different experience. This article will shed some light on how to identify whether you are having a panic attack, what they feel like, how long they last, and some helpful tips to deal with panic attacks


Physical Symptoms of Panic Attack

Symptoms of panic attack

Panic attacks include an emotional feeling component such as fear or terror of going “crazy” or dying, coupled with a variety of physical symptoms that manifest in the body. 

These physical panic attack symptoms often include: 

  • Chest pain 
  • Rapid breathing/rapid heart rate 
  • Shortness of breath/difficulty breathing
  • Sweating/chills
  • Nausea/dizziness
  • Tingling or numbness
  • Feeling disconnected from your body and/or surroundings 

Panic attacks are often mistaken for heart attacks, because of the symptoms listed above. 


How Long Does a Panic Attack Last?

Although panic attacks can come on very quickly, they generally do not last very long. Most panic attacks last between 5-20 minutes, and the peak of the symptoms will usually occur within 10 minutes. The effects of the panic attack might linger for a few hours after. Of course, every person is slightly different; although panic attacks themselves are short-lived, a person may experience multiple panic attacks throughout a day, which might feel more consistent or chronic. 


Why do Panic Attacks Occur? 

Panic attacks, at the core, are our bodies’ reaction to a stressor. The stressor can come from a variety of sources: a stressful event/situation, a natural disaster, an abusive person, etc. Despite the different sources of stress, the panic attack is a response in the body as a result of what is going on in our heads. In other words, when our brain registers the stress and has subsequent thoughts about the stress, we experience a panic attack in our physical body (however, our thoughts often are unconscious, which is why it feels as though panic attacks come on suddenly). Panic attacks might occur more in people who are prone to anxiety, who worry a lot, and are generally physically more jumpy. The human brain develops patterns and habits (it’s just a function of the mechanics of the brain), and this includes emotional habits too, like recurring panic attacks

The good news is – regardless of whether you are more prone to panic attacks, no matter how awful they might feel, they are very treatable once you understand the nature of the panic attacks themselves. 


How to Cope with Panic Attacks

Cope with Panic Attacks

Panic attacks are absolutely treatable! Although the intense feelings can feel overwhelming, much of what makes the experience of the panic attack so difficult is our interpretation and the meaning we attach to it. Panic attacks by their very nature are just a physical reaction, much like you would pull your hand off a hot stove. Of course, it does not feel good to burn your hand, but it does not mean anything about you as a human being – if anything, it’s a testament to how resilient your body is by being able to respond to a perceived threat. 

Ironically, because we find the feeling of a panic attack so unpleasant, we often spend a lot of time and energy worrying about the panic attack itself, being fearful of the possibility of it recurring, resisting and fighting with the feelings… all of which make the experience of the panic attack very “sticky” in our minds and bodies. In other words, the more we try to avoid or manipulate our panic attacks, the harder it is to let go of them completely, because we are keeping them “alive” in our minds. 

Of course, this is much easier said than done, but seeing the panic attack for what it is – our mental and physical response to a perceived threat or stressor – will help us find more compassion for ourselves, less judgment about the symptoms we are experiencing, and most importantly, empower ourselves to respond to the panic attack from a place of true self-care.


You are Not your Panic Attack 

The bottom line is: you are a human being with a very human experience. Much of our human experience includes joy, love, and peace; and much of our human experience also includes sadness, fear, and anger. These emotions make up the whole spectrum of our human experience. 

When you are experiencing joy, do you think you are somehow inherently a better or more moral person than someone you love who might be experiencing difficulty? Probably not. 


The same is true for ourselves – when we are experiencing a panic attack, as frightening as it is, as real as it might feel (literally) in our bodies – we are still, deep down in our core, safe in our human experience and inherently good, because we are part of nature, which includes ALL of the different variations of how life might show up for us. 

Finally, consider what it feels like to have a nightmare, which is essentially a panic attack in your sleep. Many of us wake up, screaming or crying, covered in sweat, sheets kicked off, only to wake up and find that we are absolutely safe in our own beds. That does not make the experience any less intense, or deny the fact that our heart was indeed racing, but the act of waking up reminds us that we can survive even the most frightening nightmares. 


The difference between a nightmare and a panic attack is that panic attacks occur when we’re awake, so they feel a lot more “true”. Consider another layer of waking up – waking up to the fact that the panic attack is just an experience we’re having in our body/mind, and does not truly point to, tarnish, or touch our identity.


Freedom from Panic Attacks with Dr. Amy Johnson

Amy Johnson is a psychologist and Change Coach who helps people find freedom from anxiety, habits, insecurity and low self-esteem. She has written several books and leads live courses and group coaching.

Amy Johnson helps find freedom from anxiety through insight and wisdom, not willpower. 

One of Amy Johnson’s most popular books is The Little Book of Big Change, about the principles behind the human experience. The Little Book of Big Change shares a unique approach to healing anxiety, worry and insecurityThe Little Book of Big Change will help you understand what is at the root of your anxiety, low self-esteem, and self-destructive habits.


About the Author

Dr. Sarah Lee is a professor, coach, and yoga & meditation teacher. Her background is in social psychology and she loves to look at the way that minds work. She struggled with anxiety, perfectionism and an eating disorder until she understood the way her mind was working so hard to keep her “safe.” She is passionate about guiding others to find more clarity, peace and freedom.

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