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Am I Having a Panic Attack? Symptoms, Techniques & Treatments

woman in a crowd having a panic attack
Many people experience a panic attack once or twice in their lives. Women are twice as likely to be affected as men.

Your heart is racing, you start to sweat, and you feel dizzy. You have a sudden and overwhelming sense of fear, even though you may have no reason to be fearful. You might think you’re having a heart attack. But it may actually be a panic attack, a symptom of an anxiety disorder.

Even if you’ve never had a panic attack before, psychologist J. Kim Penberthy, PhD, says the stress of the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak could trigger one. “We are currently in an extraordinary situation where we are all living in a stressful environment,” she says. “This is stressful for all of us!”

Panic Attack Symptoms

According to Penberthy, panic attacks usually last less than 10 minutes, but some symptoms may linger. You might experience several of these signs:

  • A racing or pounding heart
  • Feeling weak, faint, or dizzy
  • Tingling or numbness in the hands and fingers
  • A sense of impending doom, dread or fear
  • Feeling sweaty or having chills
  • Chest pains or pressure
  • Difficulty breathing or catching your breath
  • Feeling of a loss of control

While you might be stressed before a panic attack, they can also come out of the blue.

Once you’ve had a panic attack, you may constantly feel anxious at the thought of having another one. You may also develop a fear of places or situations associated with previous attacks.

For example, if you’ve had one in the car, you might fear driving. If you’ve had a panic attack in public, you may be afraid of crowded places.

What to Do if You Have a Panic Attack

When you experience signs for the first time, seek medical attention. Since symptoms can mimic other serious conditions, such as a heart attack, you’ll want to rule out other causes.

If you have experienced panic attacks in the past and know that is what’s causing your symptoms, try these techniques when you feel one coming on:

  • Practice deep, slow breathing.
  • Close your eyes while focusing on your happy place.
  • Focus on relaxing the muscles in your face and neck or shoulders.
  • Sit or lie down for a few minutes.

“Remind yourself to focus on staying calm, and think positively,” Penberthy says. “Especially if you have had panic attacks before, you can remember that it will pass.”

Panic Disorder

If you’ve had multiple attacks or the fear of having another one is disrupting your life, you may have panic disorder. Experts don’t know the exact cause of panic disorder. But family history can increase your risk. So can a stressful life event — like the coronavirus outbreak.

Having Panic Attacks?

Your primary care provider can help you come up with a plan. Request an appointment at UVA.

Panic Disorder Treatments

Many people only experience a panic attack once or twice in their lives or are able to control them with the techniques suggested above. But you may have panic disorder if:

  • You have recurrent panic attacks that you can’t control well with techniques like slow, deep breathing
  • Your fear of having another panic attack is negatively affecting your quality of life

If your doctor determines that you have panic disorder, you may benefit from treatment. Studies show treatment can greatly relieve this condition in as many as 90% of sufferers. Often a combination of psychotherapy, such as behavioral cognitive therapy, and a group of medications called benzodiazepines, such as Xanax or Klonopin, can help sufferers.

Panic disorder cannot be completely cured. But it may be effectively managed so that it doesn’t negatively impact your life.

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