Panic Attack? 13 Symptoms, Causes + Treatment Tips

Panic Attack? 13 Symptoms, Causes + Treatment Tips

Have you ever had a moment of extreme anxiety where you experienced very intense symptoms? This is a panic attack.

Do you avoid certain things, places, or situations because of your fear of panic attacks, or does this fear influence your daily life?

Do you want to get rid of that anxious feeling for good?

Then I have good news for you: today you have taken the first step in your battle against panic attacks. Read on for 3 tips against panic attacks.

What is a panic attack?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders (DSM-5) describes a panic attack as follows:

“A panic attack is a sudden attack of intense fear that provokes severe physical reactions, even when there is no real danger or obvious cause.”

During a panic attack, you are overcome by such intense fear that you may feel as though you are losing control of your body and mind.


Panic attacks usually come on suddenly and usually last a few minutes to half an hour. A fairly short time to an outsider, but to someone experiencing a panic attack, it can seem like it lasts.

A panic attack can be the result of a phobia, but it is just as well as another cause or even no cause at all. I will come back to this in detail later in this article. So keep reading carefully if you want to learn more about this.

Anxiety is the keyword in a panic attack and in different ways.
Panic Attack? 13 Symptoms, Causes + Treatment Tips

If you are extremely afraid of something, this fear can trigger a panic attack. But a panic attack in itself can also frighten you, which feeds your fear.

Let me clarify what I mean by this with an example.

Your colleagues are organizing a night out. You don’t like going out with a group of people yourself. You’re always afraid someone will get so drunk that they’ll throw up.

You hardly dare to drink anything because of your fear of vomiting. After all, you know that your fear of vomit can cause you to panic and you have had a panic attack on more than one occasion.

Just as your phobia of vomit can cause you to have a panic attack, your fear of another panic attack can upset you so much that it triggers another panic attack.

But what exactly happens when you are anxious and how can anxiety lead to a panic attack?

Anxiety is actually a defense mechanism of the body. When your body experiences anxiety or stress, stress hormones are produced so that your body can prepare to face any danger.

Under the influence of these hormones, you may experience symptoms such as an accelerated heart rate, accelerated breathing, excessive sweating, or tremors.

Man with a sweaty armpit due to a panic attack

The extent to which these stress hormones are produced is proportional to the fear that your body perceives. If you become very scared of something, your body will produce a lot of stress hormones, which can cause you to experience very intense symptoms. However, be aware that – as overwhelming as these symptoms can be – your body reacts this way because it wants to survive dangerous situations.

Dr. Melisa Robichaud, former chair of the CACBT (The Canadian Association of Cognitive and Behavioral) and expert in treating panic attacks, describes anxiety as the body’s smoke alarm: this alarm can be triggered by real danger, but also by anything that we perceive as dangerous.

What your body considers dangerous is actually not a real danger, yet this ancient defense mechanism of the body is activated that causes you to experience these symptoms.

American scientists such as Doctor Paul Li, a behavioral scientist at the University of California, describe this as the ‘fight-or-flight response.

By activating this defense mechanism, your body is able to ‘fight or flee’. Your body needs great strength for this and therefore produces numerous substances that can help with this.

Woman who chooses to fight or flee

However, if this urge to fight or flee is not given in – if the body is somehow unable to do its job – then these hormones remain in the body, keeping the body in a high state of readiness.

The symptoms that one experiences as a result of this are expressed in a panic attack.

Now you’re probably wondering what exactly those intense symptoms I keep talking about are and why they might be triggering your anxiety?

 Symptoms of a panic attack

During a panic attack, you can experience both physical and psychological symptoms.

Woman breathing hard with hand on chest

Physical Symptoms

  • Rapid heartbeat, palpitations, and chest pain.
  • Shortness of breath, a suffocating feeling, and even hyperventilation.
  • Headache.
  • Excessive sweating.
  • Muscle pain, trembling hands, and the feeling of not standing firmly on your legs.
  • Nausea and diarrhea.
  • Pass out.
  • Exhaustion.
Man passed out due to panic attack

Psychological symptoms

  • The thought of running away.
  • The feeling that you are losing control of yourself.
  • The feeling that this is not happening to you or that you are no longer yourself.
  • Thinking you’re going crazy or dying.

If you want to learn more about these symptoms, I would like to refer you to the article  15 Most Common Symptoms Of A Panic Attack.

Do you recognize one or more symptoms in yourself, then you probably want to know what exactly is the cause of your panic attacks.

What causes a panic attack?

Panic attacks can have multiple causes. They can be caused by a specific fear of something or of certain situations, but they can just as well arise for no reason or in stressful situations.

Man with hands in hair behind laptop with two mountains of work next to him

If you’ve had a panic attack before, you’re more likely to experience it again. Here you will find out exactly how.

 Panic attacks caused by phobias

Perhaps it has already happened to you: you know that you have an extreme fear of spiders. If you are even confronted with a photo of a spider you get chills and you break out in a sweat.

A confrontation with a lifelike spider gives you heart palpitations and you feel that you can lose control of yourself at any moment.

Woman pulls sweater over her nose in panic

Sometimes phobias are at the root of panic attacks. If you have an extreme fear of something, confronting the object of your fear can lead to a panic attack. After all, your body then thinks that it has to arm itself against this ‘danger’.

Stress hormones increase and at the same time various symptoms that can lead to a panic attack, such as excessive sweating, palpitations, accelerated breathing, etc…

 Fear of a physical illness

Just because the symptoms of a panic attack can be so intense, you may think that something is going wrong physically and that you will actually die.

Man is huddled in a corner

If you feel yourself short of breath, sweating and your heart beating faster, you may immediately think of a heart attack. Headaches, loss of concentration, and trembling limbs can make you feel like you are having a stroke.

However, be aware that these are typical symptoms of a panic attack and that there is nothing physically wrong with you.

Fear of repetition

Once you’ve had a panic attack and experienced these intense symptoms, the very fear of having another panic attack can trigger another panic attack. This naturally ends up in a vicious circle.

Woman covers her face with both hands out of fear

If you often have panic attacks and they follow up faster and faster, this can lead to a panic disorder.

 Panic attacks with no apparent cause

Sometimes you realize very well what the cause of your panic attack is. This is especially clear in the case of phobias or stressful situations. However, sometimes panic attacks can just happen for no reason and overtake you without prior warning.

This is also confirmed by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders (DSM-5) of the  APA (American Psychological Association).

Whether you are feeling calm or anxious – for whatever reason – or even while you are sleeping, you can have a panic attack. Often the level of anxiety is completely disproportionate to what is causing your anxiety and the panic attack is not related to a particular situation at all.

Woman is squatting with her hands on her head and a large shadow behind her

Stressful situations

While stressful situations are more likely to trigger anxiety attacks, they can also lead to panic attacks.

Suppose you are being pressured very hard at work to get a certain task done before the deadline.

You’ve worked very hard all day to gather as much information as possible, but time is ticking mercilessly and you realize that you will not be able to complete this task on time.

Success or failure in this assignment could potentially cost you your job and make you panic at the thought of the consequences. You get short of breath, you lose your concentration and you start to hyperventilate.

This is a typical example of an anxiety attack. However, if it takes on such a large proportion that you think that the symptoms could cause you to faint or even die, then we speak of a panic attack.

If you want to know more about the difference between an anxiety attack and a panic attack, read on. In the next section, I will explain this difference in detail.

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

The words panic attack and anxiety attack are often mentioned in the same breath and many people think that these terms mean the same thing. However, a panic attack and an anxiety attack are two different conditions.

Woman having a panic attack due to the amount of things she is doing

The big difference is first and foremost in the classification according to the DSM-5. This Diagnostic and Statistical Handbook of Psychiatric Disorders includes panic attacks.

This means that they are considered a psychiatric condition. And while this handbook defines extreme anxiety as a hallmark of some common psychiatric disorders, anxiety attacks are not considered such.

Precisely because anxiety traps are not included in the DSM-5, the signs and symptoms of these are open to interpretation. In concrete terms, this means that two different people who both claim to have had an anxiety attack can still experience different symptoms.

Woman behind glass with her hands against the glass

Speaking of symptoms, let’s take a look at the main differences in symptoms between a panic attack and an anxiety attack.

 Panic Attack Symptoms vs Anxiety Attack

The physical symptoms of a panic attack and an anxiety attack are especially similar: an accelerated heartbeat, palpitations, chest pain, breathlessness, sometimes hyperventilation, muscle aches and trembling limbs, nausea or diarrhea, etc…

Man with hands on his aching chest

The difference is mainly in the psychological symptoms. The feeling of fear plays a major role in both panic attacks and anxiety attacks. With both, you experience a general fear, but with panic attacks, there is an added fear of death.

You usually feel an anxiety attack coming in advance, while a panic attack can just come out of nowhere. The big difference in this comes from a feeling of ‘worrying’.

In an anxiety attack, this sensation is very strong, just like an incessant feeling of restlessness, a feeling of sadness, and a tendency to depression.

Woman with panic attack sitting on her bed and holding her legs

If you find it difficult to tell the difference between the two conditions and are wondering what exactly you are suffering from, remember the following:

  • Anxiety often has to do with stress, with certain things or with certain situations. That is why you often feel anxiety attacks in advance. Panic attacks, on the other hand, can just happen to you.
  • Anxiety symptoms may lie dormant in the background while you go about your daily business. These symptoms overwhelm you during a panic attack.
  • In a panic attack, the physical symptoms are much more intense and it feels as if your body is taking over your thoughts by, for example, feeling the urge to flee.
  • If you have ever had a panic attack, you experience an extreme fear that it will happen to you again. As a result, you often avoid certain things, situations or places that you know can trigger a panic attack.
  • A panic attack hits you suddenly, the symptoms are worst after about ten minutes and last up to half an hour. An anxiety attack does not have such peaks, but can eventually lead to a panic attack.
man who is crying

Now that you have learned the difference between panic attacks and anxiety attacks, you can better assess exactly what you are suffering from.

If you often experience panic attacks, you will want to know how to prevent and overcome them. Read on carefully to find out how best to do this.

 What to do in case of a panic attack? The 3 best tips!

In this article, I give an overview of the 3 best tips to prevent and overcome a panic attack. If you want more tips, I would like to refer you to the article ‘ 8 Tips To Stop & Endure A Panic Attack ‘.

Man who closes his eyes and radiates tranquility

Tip #1 Practice your breathing

Paying attention to your breathing is very important in preventing a panic attack.

Because you can get the feeling that you are short of breath during a panic attack, you can hyperventilate and also get a feeling of pressure in the chest. Remember that if you experience these symptoms during a panic attack, they are not signs of heart disease.

Because you breathe faster and more shallowly during a panic attack, the balance between oxygen and carbon dioxide is completely disrupted, causing you to hyperventilate and experience all kinds of other complaints.

Woman with finger against nostril and inhales calmly

Calm and correct breathing (from the abdomen) can help to prevent a panic attack. A great method for achieving calm breathing is Dr. Andrew Weil‘s 4–7–8 breathing method.

Here you proceed as follows:

  1. Breathe in through your nose for 4 counts. You feel your belly swell.
  2. Try to hold your breath for 7 counts.
  3. Exhale through your mouth for 8 counts.
Woman walks through garden and breathes calmly

 Tip #2 Visit your doctor

A visit to your doctor can help you in many ways.

Your doctor can diagnose what exactly is wrong with you and confirm your suspicion of panic attacks.

If this is indeed the case, your GP can refer you to a psychotherapist. After all, there are various forms of psychotherapy that can help you get rid of these panic attacks.

Man sitting on the couch with his therapist

A therapist will be able to tell you perfectly which form of therapy suits you best.

Medications are also often prescribed to prevent panic attacks. It is mainly beta-blockers, antidepressants, and tranquilizers that help with panic attacks. Your doctor can prescribe the correct medication and monitor its use.

 Tip #3 Enlist the help of an experienced expert

This is undoubtedly the best tip I can give you.

Do Panic Attacks Make Your Life Hell? Are you afraid of entering a vicious circle of panic attacks and anxiety? You don’t have to live your life like this any longer!

Hands holding a heart


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