Panic Attacks

Panic Attack Symptoms and Panic Disorder

Micah Abraham, BSc

Written by

Micah Abraham, BSc

Last updated October 10, 2020

Panic Attack Symptoms and Panic Disorder

Panic attacks can be debilitating events - so extreme in their symptoms that those suffering may believe they're suffering from something far worse than an anxiety disorder. In fact, panic attacks often mimic very serious health problems, including:

  • Heart Attacks
  • Brain Tumors
  • Multiple Sclerosis

Thousands of people are hospitalized every year after their first or most severe panic attack, believing that something very serious is happening. Many believe that they're about to die.

But the truth is that these people are simply suffering from a panic attack - a rush of anxiety so extreme that it causes severe physical symptoms.

Causes of Panic Attack Symptoms

One of the first questions people ask is why something like anxiety can cause these types of symptoms. After all, it's not the anxiety that makes panic attacks unbearable - it's the very real, physical sensations that give the impression something is very wrong with your health.

Panic attacks are very complex, and not all of the causes are known. Some of the reasons for having a panic attack may be:

  • Hyperventilation Hyperventilation is commonly associated with panic attacks. It may be caused by breathing too quickly, breathing too deeply, or breathing in a shallow manner.
  • Major Stress Panic attacks are correlated with major stress, especially after a traumatic event such as a physical assault, divorce, death, or other stressful life event has occurred. Major stress is associated with increased heart rate, nausea, headache and more.
  • Genetics A family history of panic attacks or panic disorder can often be found in those that suffer from panic disorder. Anxiety is a stressful experience and prolonged stress can cause cortisol levels to rise in the brain. When cortisol levels are elevated for long periods of time it can actually make changes to the brain’s chemistry. Some research has found that these changes can actually be passed down through genetics.

Finally, another issue that affects those with panic attacks is hypersensitivity. This occurs when you experience a normal (or close to normal) sensation, and it "feels" much worse. For example, experiencing a normal amount of leg pain but feeling as though your leg is in a great deal of pain. This is common for those with panic disorder.

Panic Attack Symptoms

Panic attacks can cause a variety of symptoms. Some people feel like they can't swallow, or that their tongue is swollen. Others may feel like their legs or arms want to move without their control. These are not the most common symptoms, but they can still affect those with panic disorder. The most common symptoms include:

  • Pounding and/or rapid heartbeat.
  • Heart pressure, or feeling like it's being squeezed.
  • Chest pains - often sharp and near the heart.
  • Hot flashes and sweating.
  • Trouble breathing, as though you can't get a full breath.
  • Lightheadedness, possibly with feelings of faint.
  • Trouble thinking, as though your brain isn't working properly.
  • Weakness, tingling, burning, or numbness in the arms, legs, and fingers.
  • Dizziness and trouble standing.
  • Burning sensations throughout the skin.
  • Near debilitating feeling of doom - like you're about to die, or the world is about to end.
  • Trouble focusing on anything other than your symptoms.
  • Feeling like you need to escape or get to a doctor.
  • Problems with hearing, possibly like your ears are plugged.
  • Burping, bloating, or other forms of gas.
  • Yawning or feeling like you need to expand your chest.
  • Eye strain or changes to your vision clarity.
  • Overwhelming fear.
  • Depersonalization, or the feeling as though you're outside of yourself.
  • Nausea, often with stomach pain or discomfort.
  • Pressure in your head, possibly with headache.

Not everyone experiences these symptoms with each panic attack, nor do these symptoms indicate a panic attack is coming. But these are some of the most common symptoms that may occur during an attack.

Other Symptoms of Panic Disorder

Panic disorder is more than simply having a panic attack. It also causes other symptoms that may occur any time throughout the day.

  • Fear of a panic attack: Many live in constant fear of developing another panic attack. In some cases this fear may actually cause another panic attack.
  • Agoraphobia: This is when your panic disorder is so strong that you start to become afraid of being in places or situations from which escape may be difficult (or embarrassing), or where help may be unavailable in the event of a panic attack. This results in the avoidance of those situations. Panic disorder is diagnosed as either "with" or "without" agoraphobia.

While they are not criteria for a diagnosis of Panic Disorder, many individuals may find themselves experiencing:

  • Stress symptoms: Panic attacks put so much stress on your body that it's not uncommon to feel various stress symptoms throughout the day. These may include leg pain, leg weakness, fatigue, various aches and tingling, some nausea, and more.
  • Health anxiety: Because panic attacks feel like a health problem, many people develop health anxiety. They start to convince themselves that something is very wrong, Googling symptoms and going to the doctor more often than necessary.

Panic disorder can also cause anxiety symptoms when no logical reason for anxiety appears to be present. Additionally, the mere act of worrying about your anxiety may actually lead to further panic attacks.

Things to Remember About Panic Attack Symptoms

It's never a bad idea to visit a doctor if you are concerned that something is wrong. Only a doctor can ensure that your symptoms are not caused by something more serious than panic attacks. However, make sure you remember the following:

  • Your Reaction Makes it Worse How you react to your panic attacks often make them worse. Find ways to distract yourself so that you don't think about the attack as much. It can be difficult, but the distractions will ensure that you don't allow your own thoughts and reactions to exacerbate your panic attack.
  • Don't Assume You're About to Have an Attack When you feel a symptom, remember that the symptoms don't automatically create the attack. Symptoms may be caused by generalized anxiety, breathing, gas, or nothing at all. However, if you assume that a panic attack is in the process of happening when you feel one of those symptoms, you'll actually increase the likelihood that it will.
  • You Cannot Die From a Panic Attack It's incredibly important to remember that panic attacks cannot kill you. You cannot die from your anxiety. This is important, because you have to learn not to fear the attacks if you're going to overcome them. If you try as hard as you can to avoid them, you'll be more likely to get one because you're always thinking about it. If you accept that you have panic attacks and live your life anyway, it's easier to learn how to overcome them.
  • Panic Disorder and Panic Attacks are Hard to Overcome Alone The best way to cope with panic attacks and panic disorder is to seek mental health treatment so that you can address the root causes for your anxiety. Seeing a therapist will empower you with coping skills for dealing with panic attacks when they come on, as well as help you to overcome the daily anxiety that you are experiencing.

Panic disorder symptoms can be overwhelming, and if left unchecked can take over your life. But it is possible to manage these symptoms by using strategies developed specifically to address your anxiety and the specific symptoms you're dealing with.

Questions? Comments?

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Where can I go to learn more about Jacobson’s relaxation technique and other similar methods?

– Anonymous patient


You can ask your doctor for a referral to a psychologist or other mental health professional who uses relaxation techniques to help patients. Not all psychologists or other mental health professionals are knowledgeable about these techniques, though. Therapists often add their own “twist” to the technqiues. Training varies by the type of technique that they use. Some people also buy CDs and DVDs on progressive muscle relaxation and allow the audio to guide them through the process.

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