What Does a Panic Attack Feel Like?

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Have you ever found yourself suddenly overcome by fear and anxiety? If so, you might have also become dizzy and felt like your heart was racing for no perceivable reason. What you experienced was possibly a panic attack.

A panic attack happens when you are suddenly overtaken by intense fear or anxiety that you feel you have no control over.

Panic attacks occur very quickly and can last anywhere between five and 20 minutes. In some cases, however, they can last for hours. A panic attack feels most intense about 10 minutes after it begins, after which you might begin to feel better.

What Does a Panic Attack Feel Like? 

When you get a panic attack, you feel the same emotions your body will typically elicit when exposed to fear or danger. With a panic attack, however, you generally are not exposed to any imminent danger, and your body is over-responding to a non-dangerous situation or an event that might cause mild discomfort.

When you have a panic attack, you might feel like you are losing control of the things around you. You might become faint and, in severe cases, even feel like you are dying. 

People who have had a panic attack report feeling the following symptoms:

  • Feeling intermittently cold and hot
  • Nausea
  • Feeling pain or tightness in the chest 
  • Struggling to breathe 
  • Getting a stomach pain
  • Feeling symptoms of dissociation
  • Sweating excessively
  • Trembling 
  • Dizziness
  • Feeling numbness or tingling in some parts of the body

When having a panic attack, it’s important to remember that though your symptoms might seem severe, they are not deadly and will pass in a matter of minutes. 

What Causes a Panic Attack?

It’s not clear what exactly causes a panic attack. When you are stressed or afraid, your body responds by quickening your heartbeat and sending a course of adrenaline through your body, which gives you a burst of energy. This is what’s known as your ‘fight-or-flight response’.

A Hypersensitive Fight-or-Flight Response

During a panic attack, your body responds as if you are in real danger even if no threat is around you. When experiencing a panic attack your fight or flight response is triggered even if you're doing some low-risk activity like taking a stroll or doing the dishes. 

What triggers a panic attack differs from person to person. While bright lights might trigger one person’s panic attacks, a loud noise might trigger another person’s panic attacks. Some people experience frequent panic attacks, while others only experience it occasionally. 

Panic attacks are personal, and you have to watch out for your triggers. You might find that certain people, places, or events trigger your panic attacks.

Asides from triggers, certain factors could cause panic attacks. They include: 

  • Drinking alcohol heavily 
  • Having depression 
  • Being highly stressed for an extended period 
  • Drinking too much caffeine 
  • Smoking excessively 
  • Some medications that treat asthma and heart diseases 
  • A sudden change of environment

Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder 

Getting a panic attack occasionally is typically nothing to worry about. It could happen to anyone depending on the situation they find themselves in. However, if you’ve been getting frequent panic attacks and can’t seem to identify the triggers, you might have a condition called panic disorder

A person with a panic disorder might experience such frequent panic attacks that it affects their daily functioning. They might become socially withdrawn because they are ashamed of their condition.

Panic disorders are more likely to occur in women than in men. It also starts to develop in your late teens or early adulthood.

If you’ve been having frequent panic attacks and can’t identify any triggers, it’s advisable to speak to your doctor or healthcare provider about it. About 11% of Americans experience panic attacks, and up to 3% of that number have developed a panic disorder.

How Are Panic Attacks Treated? 

Treatment for a panic attack is more likely to be recommended if you have a panic disorder. If you have occasional panic attacks, you will most likely improve with simple at-home management techniques. Treatment options include medication and psychotherapy. 

Medication 

Anti-depressants, particularly selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), are first in line and can reduce the frequency and intensity of episodes though they may take several weeks to get the most effective results. SSRIs approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of panic disorder include fluoxetine (Prozac), paroxetine (Paxil, Pexeva) and sertraline (Zoloft).

Anti-anxiety medications like Ativan and Xanax are also prescribed to treat and prevent panic attacks from occurring. However due to their risk of dependence, they should primarily be taken for short-term use as they can be habit-forming.

Psychotherapy 

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is most commonly used to treat panic attacks. CBT aims to help you identify the things that trigger your panic attacks so you can change your thoughts and behaviors about them. 

What to Do When You Get a Panic Attack 

Getting a panic attack can be scary. When a panic attack comes on, your focus should be on calming yourself down. During a panic attack, you can follow the steps below to manage your symptoms: 

  • Don’t try to stop it from happening. Trying to stop your panic attack may only intensify your symptoms.
  • Bring your focus to your breathing and slow it down. Take deep, controlled breaths and count them if that helps. 
  • Focus on other senses and sensations around you. You can hold on to something soft like a pillow or run your hands along something textured like a cardigan. 
  • Remember that you are not in danger. During the panic attack, remind yourself that the symptoms you are experiencing are not fatal and will soon pass.

After a panic attack, you might feel ashamed or silly. But, it’s important to remember that panic attacks are out of your control. Prioritizing self-care after a panic attack is also essential. Self-care can take the form of a day off from work, a long bath, or journaling. If you continue to stress over it, that might only trigger another one shortly after. 

How to Prevent a Panic Attack 

To prevent a panic attack from happening, you need first to figure out what triggers your panic attacks. When you figure out what triggers your panic attacks, you can avoid them or eliminate them from your life.

Other tips that can help you prevent a panic attack include: 

  • Avoid bad habits like smoking and consuming alcohol and caffeine excessively. These habits can increase the frequency of panic attacks or worsen them when they occur. 
  • Exercise as often as you can. Adopting a regular exercise schedule can improve your mood, cut down stress and help you live a generally more healthy life. This, in turn, can help to lessen the frequency and severity of your panic attacks. 
  • Try out some stress management methods. One of the triggers of panic attacks is stress. When you are stressed, you are more likely to have a panic attack than when you are not. Stress management methods like meditation and yoga can help you cut down on your stress.
  • Ensure that you are getting enough sleep. A panic attack can often feel like your body is on the fritz. These feelings will only be heightened when you are not getting enough sleep and your body isn’t fully rested. 
  • Make breathing exercises a part of your daily routine. While breathing exercises can help you calm down during a panic attack, you don’t have to wait for one to happen to benefit from them. Doing daily breathing exercises can help you prevent panic attacks.
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6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. National Institute of Mental Health. Panic Disorder: When Fear Overwhelms. 2016

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  6. NHS Inform. How to deal with panic attacks. April 14, 2021