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What Are the Symptoms of a Panic Attack and How Can I Help Someone Having One?

panic attack symptoms

Do you know someone who sometimes has sudden attacks of anxiety and overwhelming fear that last for several minutes? Maybe their heart pounds, or they complain about sweat, and they may feel like they can’t breathe or think.

panic attacksDo these attacks happen unpredictably with no trigger, causing you or them to worry about the possibility of having another one at any time?

Panic attacks are most often characterized by a fear of disaster or of losing control even when there is no real danger. During a panic attack, it is common for a person to also have a strong physical reaction. 

Some will say that it may feel like having a heart attack. Panic attacks can occur at any time and the potential of having one can leave those with panic disorders in constant anxiety worrying when the next will happen. If you currently have a friend experiencing a panic attack, we recommend you click here to jump to the information on what to do during a panic attack.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), in the United States, 1.6% of the adult population, which is more than three million people, will have panic disorder at some time in their lives. They also report that panic disorder impacts 2.4 million people in our country each year.

After a panic attack, some people may become discouraged and ashamed because they cannot carry out normal routines like going to school or work, going to the grocery store, or driving.

How Long Do Panic Attacks Last and What Are the Signs and Symptoms?

Panic attacks are not classified as a mental health disorder themselves; instead they are classified as symptoms that occur with other mental disorders. Often, we think that when it comes to panic or anxiety that it is one-size-fits-all but that is not the case.

There are two main types of panic attacks that can occur if you have a panic disorder.

  1. The unexpected panic attack
    These are sometimes called “out-of-the-blue” panic attacks. This is what most of us imagine when we think of a panic attack. These come on quickly with little to no warning. This type of panic attack doesn't accompany any conscious internal cues, such as having fearful thoughts, feelings of intense dread and anxiety, or uncomfortable physical sensations.
  2. The expected panic attack
    This is a type of panic attack that comes on slow. These usually occur if someone is around what gives them anxiety or fear for a long time. Think of someone who has a fear of flying having a gradually worsening fear that leads to panic during their flight taking off. 

How Long Do Panic Attacks Last and What Are the Signs and Symptoms?

Panic attacks themselves usually do not last very long. Most are over within an hour of starting and reach a peak within the first 10 minutes.

Regardless of the type of panic attack, most people will experience typical symptoms of panic or extreme fear. During their panic attack, people may experience:

  • Heart palpitations, a pounding heartbeat, or an accelerated heart rate
  • Sweating, trembling or shaking
  • Sensations of shortness of breath, smothering, or choking
  • Feelings of impending doom
  • Feelings of being out of control

According to the diagnostic criteria listed in Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5), the DSM-5 is a source of classification and diagnosis guidelines for mental illnesses that is used across the world. Panic attacks are experienced as a sudden sense of fear and dread, and they are accompanied by at least four other mental, emotional, and physical symptoms.

The four or more other symptoms require by the DSM-5 to be a diagnosable panic attack may include any of the following:

  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Chills or hot flashes
  • Derealization and/or depersonalization
  • Excessive sweating
  • Fear of dying
  • Fear of losing control or going crazy
  • Feeling of choking
  • Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint
  • Feelings of numbness or tingling sensations (paresthesias)
  • Heart palpitations or accelerated heart rate
  • Nausea or abdominal pain
  • Shortness of breath or smothering sensations
  • Trembling or shaking

Can Treatment Help Someone Who Is Having a Panic Attack?

If someone you know has a panic attack, they are most likely feeling very anxious and not thinking clearly. There are a few things that you may be able to do to relieve some anxiety and help soothe some of the most pressing symptoms of the attack. We suggest that you:

  1. Stay with the person and keep calm.
  2. Offer medicine if the person usually takes it during an attack.
    Sometimes during a panic attack, the person may panic more if they feel that they cannot find their medicine. If you know someone with a panic disorder, it may be beneficial to take some time to learn where they keep their medicine in case they need it and cannot find it.
  3. Don't make assumptions about what the person needs. Ask.
    It may be hard for them to articulate or clearly say what they need but it can be important for you to be calm and considerate. Simply doing random things or what you think someone may want can actually put them further on edge (see number 5 below)
  4. Speak to the person in short, simple sentences.
  5. Be predictable. Avoid surprises.
  6. Help slow the person's breathing
    You can do this by breathing with him or her or by counting slowly to 10. Or downloading a breathing app or using a tool on a smart watch if the person has one.

Offer Support When You See Signs or Symptoms

What you say matters and that is still true even during a panic attack. There are some phrases that are helpful and some that are more hurtful to someone who is experiencing a panic attack. Try to say things such as:

  • "You can get through this."
  • "Tell me what you need now."
  • "Concentrate on your breathing. Stay in the present."
  • "What you are feeling is scary, but it is not dangerous."

By doing these things you will reduce the stress for the person experiencing panic. Remember that this is a very stressful experience both mentally and physically. You also will be helping to prevent the situation from becoming worse. Asserting control in these instances when the person feels there may be a lack of control can help eliminate confusion that takes place and it is important to remember that you are there to offer help at the moment and after.

Some other tips to keep in mind when you are trying to support someone who experiences panic attacks, either for the first time or the fiftieth time, are:

  • Allow the person to proceed in therapy at their own pace.
  • Be patient and praise all efforts toward recovery, even if the person is not meeting all their goals.
  • Do not agree to help the person avoid things or situations that cause anxiety.
  • This can be difficult as you never want to increase the stress they feel but sometimes exposure to the trigger can help, Check out our Panic Disorder page to learn more about how this works.
  • Do not panic when the person panics.

What Is a Panic Disorder?

According to the DSM-5, a person must have recurrent and often unexpected panic attacks and at least one of these attacks needs to be followed by one or more attacks or the fear of more attacks.

This is a disorder that requires a professional diagnosis. This will help rule out other causes of some symptoms of panic disorder like: drug use, medication side effects, other mental disorders such as phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), etc.

Panic disorder often begins in the late teens or early adulthood. More women than men have panic disorder. But not everyone who experiences panic attacks will develop panic disorder.

panic attack symptomsHaving experienced one panic attack is usually a sign that a person can expect to have more. Worry about panic attacks, and the effort spent trying to avoid attacks, can cause significant problems in various areas of life.

A person with panic disorder may experience interference with their everyday life and activities due to panic attacks. For example, they may spend time worrying about future panic attacks. Many people will also actively try to prevent future attacks by avoiding places, situations, or behaviors they associate with panic attacks. Additionally, many people with panic disorder deal with loneliness and isolation.

If you want to learn more about panic attacks and panic disorder, we suggest you take a look at our Panic Disorder page.

How Do You Help After the Panic Attack?

Many people with panic disorder distance themselves, fearing others won’t understand. They may be embarrassed by their panic attacks or other anxiety symptoms. There are also many myths about panic disorder that may contribute to a panic sufferer's feelings of shame.

This means that you may need to remind your loved one, family member, or friend that they are not alone and that while you may not understand their experience exactly, you do understand that they have unique experiences that you wish to be supportive of.

It can also be helpful to encourage them to spend time doing self-care and using self-care strategies that help to combat feelings of loneliness and reduce panic disorder symptoms. 

For example, physical exercise for panic disorder can help reduce stress hormones and decrease muscle tension. It may be worthwhile to invite the person to exercise with you or a small group. Also, it is important to remember that on average it takes 5 weeks for the brain to produce endorphins as a result of exercising so it will take more than one or two trips to the gym to feel results!

Another way to help someone overcome the feelings of isolation related to panic attacks is to gently encourage them to put themselves out there by getting involved in classes, groups, clubs, or organizations. Providing a supportive and understanding group of people can help eliminate loneliness.

The support network can be made up of professionals, understanding loved ones and others who relate to the experiences with panic disorder. Trusted friends and family can have a positive impact on your growth. Support can be found through group therapy or even virtually, through online support forums.

It is also important that you remember to think of yourself too, during and after your loved one’s panic attack. For example:

  • Remember that it is all right to be concerned and anxious yourself.
  • Accept the current situation, but know that it will not last forever.
  • Remember to take care of yourself.

At SUN Behavioral, we know that meeting the needs of someone having a panic attack or with a panic disorder can be one of the most complicated and tricky experiences to handle. For that reason, we are here to help you navigate the experience that your loved one is going through, and we are here to help them find the care that they need.

Get Support For Your Loved One’s Panic Attacks or Panic Disorder

At SUN, we’ve created a caring, healing environment and will be there for every step of your journey to recovery. Please call us today at 614-706-2786 to help you, your family, and your loved one.

Millions of Americans suffer from depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and other conditions. It can be a lonely, confusing, and emotional experience but you are not alone. If you or someone you love is struggling, SUN Behavioral Health in Columbus can help.

At SUN Behavioral, our master’s-level clinicians provide care for these specific challenges surrounding mental illness. Struggling with a mental illness is extremely difficult. Not only does it impact an individual on an emotional level, but it can also leave them with several physical complications.

614-706-2786

Symptoms of Panic and Anxiety Attacks - FAQs

How do you ground someone having a panic attack?

The most effective way to ground them, or bring them back to the reality around them, is to help them stabilize their breathing. A lot of people will hyperventilate during a panic attack and this can have mental and physical side effects that make it hard to focus or relax. Focus on their breathing first by either doing counted breathing or using a breathing rhythm video or app.

Should you touch someone having a panic attack?

This is entirely dependent on the person. Some will find comfort in being held and rocked during their panic attacks, others may not want to be touched. It is very important that you always ask before simply reaching out or hugging someone experiencing a panic attack. They may become scared and lash out without realizing it if they cannot see you before you touch them or if they were not expecting to be touched.

How long do panic attacks last?

Everyone is different but in general the worst of a panic attack will peak within 10 minutes. Most panic attacks are no longer than 30 minutes. If you notice that your loved one’s panic attacks are lasting longer, it may be time to seek professional care.

What triggers panic attacks?

Panic attacks can be triggered by a variety of factors. These can be irrational fears or intense stressful situations like flying, boating, or public speaking. Triggers can also include crowded places, going to a certain location that makes a person deeply uncomfortable, dealing with intense confrontation, or stress. Like most things related to mental health, it is different for everyone and every type of trigger is different for each and every individual.

What is the difference between a panic attack and an anxiety attack?

Many people use panic and anxiety interchangeably especially when it comes to panic attacks and anxiety attacks. This is not really correct. A panic attack is usually short lived and filled with intense fear or terror. An anxiety attack can produce similar symptoms like shortness of breath but most often they can last longer and the trigger is usually not rooted in intense fear or horror. Also, anxiety attacks have some different physical symptoms than panic attacks as well.

What is the difference between a panic attack and an anxiety attack?

Many people use panic and anxiety interchangeably especially when it comes to panic attacks and anxiety attacks. This is not really correct. A panic attack is usually short lived and filled with intense fear or terror. An anxiety attack can produce similar symptoms like shortness of breath but most often they can last longer and the trigger is usually not rooted in intense fear or horror. Also, anxiety attacks have some different physical symptoms than panic attacks as well.

Get Help Today!

614-706-2786
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