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 others 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.
What Do Your Symptoms Mean?
Every panic symptom has a meaning, and the more severe it is, the more unique symptoms you struggle with. Our free 7 minute anxiety test can score the severity of your anxiety, compare it to others, and find ways to treat it.
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. If you haven't yet, make sure you take my free 7 minute anxiety test now.
Panic attacks are very complex, and not all of the causes are known. But the most common reasons panic attacks lead to physical symptoms include:
- Hyperventilation The main cause of panic attack symptoms is hyperventilation. It may be caused by breathing too quickly, breathing too deeply, or breathing in a shallow manner. Hyperventilation is the leading cause of many panic attack symptoms.
- Extreme Stress Panic attacks represent extreme stress. Extreme stress causes your hormones to become unbalanced, increases heart rate, causes nausea and more. Stress can squeeze organs, affect breathing, and cause numerous physical symptoms.
- Psychosomatic Some symptoms are simply caused by the mind. It's not clear how the mind causes these symptoms - some people may expect a symptom and feel it, while others may find that their brain simply creates the symptom during the attack - but these symptoms have no direct physical cause.
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 some incredibly strange 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. However, 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.
- Trouble holding your head up.
- A feeling as though you need to go to the bathroom.
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 doesn't just cause panic attacks. It also causes other symptoms that may occur any time throughout the day. These symptoms aren't necessarily part of a panic diagnosis, but they may occur in those that suffer from panic disorder:
- Fear of a panic attack. Many of those 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 going outdoors. Many people receive a diagnosis of panic disorder "with" or "without" agoraphobia.
- Limited symptom panic attacks. These are when you start to feel some of the symptoms of panic attacks, but they never develop into a full blown attack. It may be that you successfully stopped the attack or it simply never materialized.
- 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 generalized anxiety symptoms when no anxiety appears to be present. This often contributes to health anxiety, which in turn makes it more likely you'll suffer from 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 simply 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 disorder.
- 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, 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 symptoms can be overwhelming, and if left unchecked can take over your life. But it is possible to cure these symptoms, using strategies developed specifically to address your anxiety and the specific symptoms you're dealing with.
I've helped thousands of people overcome their panic attack symptoms, but to start, it's important you fill out the symptom checker - a 7 minute anxiety test that runs your experience against others with anxiety to help developed a more specific anxiety plan.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Sep 28, 2017.