Common Symptoms of Panic Attacks

Know these top 12 signs

Panic attacks are the main symptom of panic disorder​ but they can occur with other mental health and medical conditions. These attacks are characterized by a variety of physical, emotional, and cognitive symptoms. Here are the top signs and symptoms of panic attacks.

Panic Attack signs and symptoms
Illustration by JR Bee, Verywell

Heart Palpitations or Accelerated Heart Rate

When experiencing a panic attack, many people feel as though their heart is pounding. Heart palpitations are often fearfully perceived, as many panic attack sufferers believe that this is a sign of a serious medical emergency, such as a heart attack or stroke. However, heart rate typically returns to normal as the panic attack subsides.

Trembling or Shaking

When having a panic attack, a person may feel trembling sensations, especially in the arms, legs, hands, and feet. Similar to other panic attack symptoms, uncontrollable trembling and shaking are a result of the fight-or-flight reaction, which prepares the body to either fight off or flee from a real or imagined threat in the environment. This response is triggered frequently in people with panic disorder and often without cause.

Excessive Sweating

As anxious feelings arise, it's not uncommon for the panic sufferer to begin to sweat. Much like other anxiety-related symptoms, excessive sweating is part of the body’s innate stress response. This reaction signals the body to be aware of feelings of danger.

Hyperventilation

Hyperventilation involves shallow and restricted breathing that's brought on by panic and anxiety. During a panic attack, a person’s normal breathing pattern may change in a way that doesn't allow him or her to take full complete breaths. Instead, the person will take quick and short breaths. Hyperventilation may be accompanied by taking loud gasps of air, but may also be portrayed more subtly through coughing and rapid breathing.

Choking Sensations

As with hyperventilation, a person going through a panic attack may feel a sense of restricted breathing and shortness of breath. These may contribute to feelings of choking. Whether related to hyperventilation or not, choking sensations can intensify the panic sufferer’s anxiety.

Chest Pain

Many panic sufferers report that chest pain is one of the most frightening symptoms of panic attacks. People with panic disorder may experience chest pain caused by both cardiac and/or non-cardiac mechanisms, including heart spasms, blood flow obstruction, musculoskeletal pain, esophageal spasms, and anxiety itself. Chest pain is one of the most common symptoms of panic attacks that leads people to seek immediate medical assistance.

Nausea or Abdominal Pain

Panic attacks can cause sensations of discomfort or pain of the abdominal region. Other symptoms, such as hyperventilation and feelings of anxiety, may contribute to nausea and/or abdominal pain. Most panic sufferers don't vomit while having a panic attack, but it's not uncommon to feel nauseous until the attack subsides.

Dizziness and Lightheadedness

When going through a panic attack, a person may begin to feel dizzy and unsteady. This makes it hard for the person to focus and can heighten anxiety. Although uncommon, it's possible for someone experiencing a panic attack to faint from lightheadedness.

Derealization and Depersonalization

During a panic attack, a person may feel disconnected from themselves and/or the surrounding environment. When experiencing these symptoms, the person may view his or her surroundings as distorted, foggy, or unfamiliar. The person may feel as though he or she is robotic, outside the self, or just going through the motions. Derealization and depersonalization tend to negatively impact the panic sufferer and often leads to increased fear, panic, and anxiety.

Numbness and Tingling Sensations

Feelings of numbness and tingling are often accompanied with derealization and depersonalization, but can also be the result of the intense feelings of anxiety that occur during a panic attack. Areas of the body may have pins-and-needle sensations or feel completely frozen and numb. These symptoms can occur anywhere on the body but are most often felt in the hands, arms, legs, fingers, toes, and face.

Fears of Dying, Losing Control, or Going Crazy

It's not surprising that for the person having a panic attack, the experience is often terrifying. As the attack escalates, the person may worry about his or her personal safety and experience a fear of dying. Additionally, panic attacks can make a person feel as though he or she is going to lose control of oneself or possibly "go insane." Such thoughts and fears often increase the intensity of panic and anxiety.

Chills or Hot Flushes

Getting the chills is often a sign that someone is frightened. Similarly, the increased perspiration, heart rate, respiration, and metabolism that result when someone senses danger can cause the body's temperature to rise. Again, the fight-or-flight response is initiated, assisting the body to build strength to fight off or run from the threat. A person going through a panic attack can also oscillate between feeling excessively hot and cold. For example, hot flushes can lead to excessive sweating, which can potentially cause the sufferer to experience cold chills.​

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