What Happens in a Panic Attack?

One minute you are fine, maybe even looking forward to something. The next minute you are struck with panic. And not just panic – your body starts to respond with acute physical symptoms. Even if this isn’t your first panic attack, it always feels like the first time. Anyone who says “it’s all in your head” or that you are looking for attention obviously has never had a panic attack. Panic attacks are not about making a fuss or being afraid. Rather, it is the physical manifestation of some very real emotions and triggers. Here’s what happens when you or someone you care about experiences a panic attack and what you can do to navigate through to help them.

Tapping into Fight or Flight

Many people confuse anxiety attacks with panic attacks. To be clear a panic attack is a sudden episode of extreme panic, fear, or anxiety that can trigger acute physical reactions, whereas an anxiety attack is the result of being apprehensive or fearful, such as is the case with those who are afraid to fly.

The key difference between anxiety and panic attacks is that panic attacks come on suddenly and are unprovoked (although many are brought on by either known or long-dormant triggers). When one does have a panic attack, their body enters into a “fight or flight” posture that is no different than what our ancient ancestors probably experienced when they were faced with grave danger. That’s because our body’s response in today’s modern era is no different than it would have been millennia ago:  when faced with danger we still have the choice to fight it or run away.

Physical Response

During a panic attack, expect your adrenaline to flood, your heart to start racing, and perhaps your senses will go into “high alert.” You may feel like you are going crazy (you’re not). What you likely will experience can include sweating, shallow breathing leading to lightheadedness, nausea and dizziness, clammy skin, chills or numbness, and even a tightening sensation in the chest or throat. These symptoms will pass within a short amount of time – anywhere between five minutes to an hour. But that time can feel like an eternity.

Of note:  A panic attack is not a heart attack:  while the symptoms may appear to be similar, for example, feeling light-headed or nauseous, a panic attack is not life-threatening (even though their impact can be quite devastating and exhausting) and most likely will not require emergency medical attention.

Getting Through a Panic Attack

If you experience a panic attack, try to find a place where you can sit or lay down and feel comfortable. Reassure yourself that the attack will pass and that you’re not in danger. Try to focus on your breathing – Inhale slowly through your nose for five seconds, then exhale through your mouth for five seconds. Try to keep your breathing stable and slow; try closing your eyes whilst doing this to visualize or think about something calming. It’s a good idea to have this “plan” in place to tap into it at a critical time. And for those who are trying to help their friends or loved ones “get through” the episode, rarely will you find the right words; therefore employ a calming voice to reassure your loved that he is safe and understood.


If you experience panic attacks, or are finding your panic attacks are becoming more frequent, contact the friendly staff at Psy-Visions.  Dr. Mark Stracks has extensive experience treating clients with complicated medical conditions, ongoing addiction issues, chronic pain presentations, developmental difficulties, and trauma. He will ensure you receive comprehensive, supportive care by evaluating your specific needs and working with you to uncover and treat the issues causing your episodes. Get the expert care you need. Call (203) 405-1745 today for a brighter tomorrow or use our confidential online form.

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