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10 Clear Signs You’re Having a Panic Attack

Many people use the term "panic attack" loosely, declaring they've had a panic attack when they're really just experiencing minor stress. But a panic attack is much more acute—it's a sudden episode of sheer terror so intense that it can actually cause physical reactions.

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A deep fear strikes out of the blue

Panic attacks can come without warning, triggering a sudden feeling of overwhelming dread. It’s more than feeling nervous, anxious, or stressed out about something. According to the American Psychological Association, the surge that comes over you is “intense” and “comes without any obvious reason,” though often it’s linked to feeling physically trapped or agoraphobic. If your panic attacks are recurring, you can go on to develop panic disorder, which affects some six million American adults, more women than men, according to WebMD. Learn the everyday habits that can trigger a panic attack. 

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You feel like you’re losing your mind

Because of the intensity and sudden onset of the feelings, in addition to the physical panic attack symptoms that may arise at the same time, it’s not unusual to develop a “fear of going crazy” during a panic attack, Todd Farchione, PhD, of the Boston University Center for Anxiety & Related Disorders, told U.S. News & World Report. One patient elaborated for U.S. News & World Report, saying that the mind/body disconnect about what’s happening can be confusing. “I didn’t know what was going on,” the patient said. “Your body doesn’t know what to do… Half your brain is telling you to run, and the other half is telling you to stay. You’re in kind of a deadlock.” Here’s what to do if you get a panic attack at night.

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Your heart races

When you have a panic attack, your body responds as though it’s under an actual physical threat, escalating to a state of severe discomfort within minutes. A massive surge of nervous signals activates the amygdala, the brain’s evolutionary fight or flight center, causing symptoms that include a rapid, pounding heart rate that can make you feel like you’re having a heart attack. Find out tips for managing anxiety and panic disorder.

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You fear for your life

The fear pulsing through you may lead you to feel as though you’re dying or out of control. But what’s really happening, as Farchione explains, is that your body is flooded with adrenaline, due to the perception of imminent danger. It’s gearing up to do whatever’s needed to protect itself, whether that means punching and kicking or running as fast as you can. If you can remember that this is simply your natural, physiological responses at work, it may lessen the impact of the fear. Check out the 4 steps to help you calm down from a panic attack––and two you should avoid.

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You may feel short of breath

Having “difficulty breathing” and “feeling as though you can’t get enough air” are common panic attack symptoms when you’re experiencing a panic attack, according to the American Psychological Association. It happens when heightened anxiety causes you to breathe too quickly and hyperventilate. Learning some mindful breathing techniques may help prevent anxious feelings from escalating into a full-scale panic attack. These magic phrases can instantly calm your anxiety.

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You’re like a deer in the headlights

You may find yourself overcome with a fear so strong that it practically renders you immobile. The American Psychological Association describes this as a “terror that is almost paralyzing.”

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The room seems to be spinning

Common panic attack symptoms include feeling weak, dizzy, and faint, likely because blood is rushing away from your brain toward your limbs, so you can fight or flee as needed. Don’t be surprised if nausea enters the picture too; the American Psychological Association says that this sensation may accompany dizziness during a panic attack.

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You sweat

Sweating is a natural reaction to heightened anxiety. You may also start trembling or shaking while you’re sweating. Here are other natural anxiety remedies to try.

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You’re hot and you’re cold

During a panic attack, it’s not uncommon to feel suddenly flushed with heat or have chills. While a panic attack lasts only about five to ten minutes, you can feel some of the effects for hours. Here are some things that people living with anxiety can understand.

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You’ve undergone a lot of stress

Although there are variations on who gets panic attacks and why, one thing that’s clear is that severe stress plays a role.  “The cause is very often stress that’s occurred over the past six to eight months,” Reid Wilson, PhD, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, told U.S. News & World Report. “Often the stress might have to do with loss—a sense that there’s a task or challenge in front of me that I perceive as large, and I perceive my skills as small.” If you’ve faced a great deal of stress on a fairly ongoing basis, and you experience most of the panic attack symptoms we’ve mentioned, it’s highly likely you’re having panic attacks. Here’s what crisis counselors want people to know about anxiety.

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Coping strategies for a panic attack

If you’re having recurring panic attacks, seek professional guidance, ideally from a mental health practitioner who can offer cognitive behavior therapy. The American Psychological Association says that experts trained in cognitive behavior therapy can help you change your way of thinking so that you view potential trigger situations more positively, understand your fears, and ultimately face them. In some instances, relaxation techniques or anti-anxiety medications may be recommended. In the meantime, brush up on the ways naturally calm people avoid toxic stress in the first place.

Jennifer Lea Reynolds
Jennifer Lea Reynolds is a journalist and advocate. Her articles on mental-health topics like ADHD, body image, relationships, and grief have been published in outlets including U.S. News & World Report, Reader’s Digest, Woman’s Day, Smithsonian magazine, Mental Floss, and The Huffington Post. She has been a featured guest on national podcasts, including Distraction and Health Check. Reynolds is the founder of The Kindness Couture, an effort dedicated to shedding cloaks of negativity and making sure kindness remains in style. From kindness in the corporate culture to easy ways to demonstrate caring acts, she is dedicated to showcasing the benefits of compassion and empathy. Motivated by her own unpleasant experiences with bullying, Reynolds also draws on research about the decline of workplace kindness. Her Facebook page, The Kindness Couture, provides more information about increasing empathy. Reynolds is the author of two children’s picture books encouraging kindness, compassion, and hope in young people—Carl, The Not-so-Crabby Crab and The Cat Who Loved the Moon. A graduate of Monmouth University, she lives in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire.