Until you have had your first panic attack, it is impossible to fully understand what it feels like. Everyone has likely asked themselves at some point or another “Am I having a panic attack?” While it might just be some heartburn, more than 20% of adults do experience a true panic attack at some point in their lifetime, and approximately 2.7% of American adults have a panic disorder. So how do you know if you are having a panic attack?

What is a panic attack?

In order to determine if you are experiencing a panic attack, it can be helpful to understand exactly what a panic attack actually is. A panic attack is when – in the absence of true danger – feelings of fear, disaster, or losing control trigger a strong physical response. On a physiological level, what is happening is that your brain senses fear and triggers your fight or flight response. When your body is in fight or flight mode, the sympathetic nervous system kicks in and redirects all of its energy and resources to the muscles and organs in your body needed to fight or flee. Your body produces cortisol (the stress hormone), and your breathing becomes more rapid and shallow which reduces oxygen intake. Your blood vessels constrict, blood pressure rises, and your body begins to feel tight. 

Being that there likely isn’t a tiger, bear, or any other scary monster to actually fight or run from, this response isn’t actually helpful. What your body really needs is to send signals back to the brain that everything is okay and that there isn’t actually any physical danger.

Signs of a panic attack

The way that panic attacks feel has often been compared to a heart attack, with the most commonly mentioned symptom being tightness in the chest. Yet, most people who have panic attacks haven’t had a heart attack before. So how are they supposed to know what it feels like or how to differentiate a panic attack from a true heart attack? Here are some signs of a panic attack to start with:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Feeling faint/lightheaded
  • Sudden increase in sweat production/hot flashes
  • Nausea
  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty breathing/shortness of breath
  • Shaking/trembling
  • Chills
  • Tight feeling in the chest/throat
  • Numbness/pins and needles feeling
  • Dry mouth
  • Sudden urge to use the restroom/upset stomach
  • Ringing in ears
  • Feelings of dread or a fear of dying
  • Feeling disconnected from your body

Panic attack vs. heart attack

To be completely frank, the signs of a panic attack and heart attack are very similar. Between 2009 and 2011, there were well over a million emergency room visits for panic attacks. Of course, people don’t usually go to the hospital expecting to be treated for a panic attack, but to rule out a heart attack. Here are some quick tips to help you differentiate the two types of episodes:

  • The tightness and pain of a panic attack usually stay in the chest whereas with heart attacks it may radiate to the arm, neck, or jaw.
  • The type of chest pain associated with heart attacks usually feels like extreme heaviness accompanied by a burning sensation similar to heartburn. Pani attacks on the other hand usually feel like a more sharp sensation and increased heartbeat.
  • Heart attacks are often triggered by physical exertion whereas panic attacks are not.
  • Both can occur while sleeping, but people usually don’t have panic attacks at night unless they also experience them during the day.

Am I having another panic attack?

If you find yourself experiencing multiple panic attacks – as opposed to an isolated event – you may be struggling with a panic disorder. This is a serious condition that can be debilitating but is also treatable. With the help of mental health treatment, you may be back to living a normal, productive life in no time. Don’t wait until your condition gets worse, find a rehab or treatment provider today!