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What Does a Panic Attack Feel Like?

For those who have never experienced it, it can be difficult to understand the feelings that accompany a panic attack. At the same time, knowing how to soothe a panic attack, whether it's for yourself or someone else, can be invaluable. Firstly, it is important to understand what a panic attack is - usually a sudden and intense wave of fear or distress. This feeling comes without warning, and concerningly, can occur when there is no real danger present. Panic attacks are often mistaken for heart attacks or other health emergencies due to the severity and sudden onset of symptoms. Panic attacks can manifest differently for everyone, but there are some common symptoms.

panicked woman clutching a pillow

Common Panic Attack Symptoms

  • Rapid Heartbeat or Heart Palpitations: Often described as feeling like the heart is beating out of control.

  • Sweating, Hot Flashes, and Cold Flashes: Regardless of temperature, breaking out in a sweat or suddenly feeling uncomfortably hot or cold.

  • Numbness or Tingling Sensations: Change of sensation in the fingers and/or toes.

  • Trembling or Shaking: Hands or legs may shake uncontrollably.

  • Dizziness or Light-Headedness: Feeling on the brink of fainting.

  • Nausea or Stomach Cramps: Similar to a nervous stomach, but often more severe.

  • Chest Pain, Shortness of Breath, or Tightness in Throat: Sharp sensations of pressure or tightness, or feeling as if there is a lack of oxygen.

  • Fear of Losing Control or Fear of Dying: Experiencing an overwhelming sense of impending doom.

  • Feeling Detached From Reality or Oneself: Feeling removed from the immediate environment, as if everything is happening in a movie or being watched from outside the situation.

Soothing A Panic Attack

  • Recognition: Knowing that what you’re experiencing is a panic attack and not a life-threatening situation can sometimes be the first step in managing it.

  • Quiet Space: If possible, find a quiet and comfortable place where you can sit or lie down.

  • Breathing: Slow, deep breaths can help regulate your nervous system and override feelings of fear. Try the following breathing technique: inhale for a count of four, hold for a count of four, and then exhale for a count of four.

  • Grounding: Referred to as "5-4-3-2-1", this grounding technique asks you to identify five things you can see, four you can touch, three you can hear, two you can smell, and one you can taste. This can help divert your mind from the panic and reconnect you with your surroundings.

  • Positive Affirmations: Repeating affirmations like “I am safe,” “This too shall pass,” or “I am in control” can help redirect your focus. Remind yourself that the panic attack is temporary, and the intense feelings will pass.

  • Avoid Caffeine and Alcohol: Both can provoke panic attacks in some people.

  • Speak to Someone: Sometimes, just talking to someone you trust can help.

  • Muscle Relaxation: Tense and then relax each muscle group in your body one by one. This can help you feel more calm and in control.

woman curled up on a bed covering her face

When to Seek Help

While panic attacks are often not indicative of an underlying physical condition, it is important to speak with a mental health professional if you begin to experience them frequently. A mental health specialist can provide strategies to prevent and cope with future attacks. If you're unsure if what you're experiencing is a panic attack or something else, always seek medical attention. While panic attacks are undeniably challenging and frightening, understanding them and having techniques at the ready can make them more manageable. If you or someone you know struggles with them, remember that there's help available and that you're not alone.


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