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What does a panic attack feel like? Symptoms, causes, treatment and more

A panic attack can happen out of the blue and for no obvious reason.
Young woman with hand on chest
During a panic attack, the body responds as if it's in danger, even though there is no threat.Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Heart pounding, lungs straining, room spinning, a panic attack can make people feel as if they’re about to die. Then, just as suddenly as it begins, it’s over.

What’s happening here?

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America describes a panic attack as the abrupt onset of intense fear or discomfort. It can happen out of the blue and for no obvious reason when a person is calm, or strike when she’s feeling anxious.

The body responds as if it’s in danger, even though there is no threat, said Todd Farchione, director of the intensive program at Boston University’s Center for Anxiety & Related Disorders.

“It’s sort of a false alarm,” Farchione said. “It’s all internal and that’s what’s so frightening for people. If you had a big spider in front of you and were having a reaction to that, you’d say, ‘I understand why I’m having a reaction to that.’”

But there is no spider, just a sudden surge of overwhelming fear and the body's classic fight-or-flight response designed to get you out of there or face a threat.

Panic attacks are a common phenomenon and can happen with any anxiety disorder, Farchione said.

What are the symptoms?

Without warning, sufferers feel out of control and “crazy,” and experience “terror that is almost paralyzing,” the American Psychological Association noted. They also feel there’s no way to stop the panic attack.

Symptoms may include a racing heart, difficulty breathing, nausea, lightheadedness, shakiness, and the tingling of hands or lips. People can also experience feelings of unreality, not being present or being disconnected, Farchione said.

What does a panic attack feel like?

Here are some first-hand accounts from high-profile sufferers:

"I’m like, ‘What is this? Am I dying? What’s happening?’” actress Chrissy Metz recalled thinking during a panic attack she experienced on her 30th birthday. “It was really scary.”

“Everything was spinning, like my brain was trying to climb out of my head. The air felt thick and heavy. My mouth was like chalk,” basketball star Kevin Love wrote in an essay published in March. “It was like my body was trying to say to me, ‘You’re about to die.’”

“I had a hard time breathing. I was terrified for no apparent reason. At times, I feel like there’s a saber-toothed tiger right here and it’s going to attack me and kill me. I’m scared as if that’s really happening. You feel like you’re dying — in fact, I went to the hospital,” TODAY's Carson Daly said, revealing his struggles after being inspired by Love’s experience.

“Every single time I was in any room with loads of people, which is quite often, I was just pouring with sweat, like heart beating — boom, boom, boom, boom — and literally just like a washing machine,” Britain's Prince Harry recalled last year, revealing he often suffered serious panic attacks after the death of his mother.

How long does a panic attack last?

The height of a panic attack lasts a few minutes because the body can’t sustain that level of fight-or-flight arousal for very long, Farchione said. But after it peters out, the sufferer may continue to worry about it and still feel some of the symptoms.

What is panic disorder?

When people begin to fear their panic attacks and are preoccupied with their next one, they may develop panic disorder, which strikes about 3 percent of U.S. adults, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America estimates. The disorder is twice as common in women as in men.

Sufferers are more sensitive to very minor changes and fluctuations in their body, triggering a spiral of fear, Farchione said. They can think themselves into a panic attack by anticipating it.

“The panic attack itself… is the thing they’re afraid of,” he noted, so they’ll avoid situations where it’s more likely to happen or where it’s happened before. They may shun public transportation, concerts, movie theaters and other places where they feel they can’t easily escape.

What’s the treatment?

Therapy and medications can help. There’s also evidence that eating certain foods can help manage your overall anxiety.

Educate yourself. Just understanding what a panic attack is, how it manifests, how long it’ll last can be very valuable, Farchione said.

Try to think differently about your response. Being more open, accepting and compassionate about your symptoms can help, he noted. Tell yourself, “It’s OK, there’s nothing wrong with me, it doesn’t mean there’s anything dangerous here.”

Avoid avoiding. Try not to shun situations or things likely to elicit the attack, Farchione said. “What’s interesting about panic disorder is the more the person goes towards surrender and acceptance of the panic attacks, they’re much less likely to have them. It short-circuits the cycle that happens with panic.”

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