Did I Just Have a Panic Attack?

Understanding the Symptoms of Panic Attacks

Try to imagine this scenario: You are going about a regular day when out-of-the-blue, you are overcome with feelings of dread. You suddenly find it difficult to breathe and your heart begins to race. Your hands shake, your chest aches, and you can feel yourself becoming drenched in sweat. You wonder if you could be having a heart attack and worry that others are looking at you. You start to feel that you are losing touch with reality and fear that you are going to lose control of yourself.

In less than 20 minutes your symptoms start to subside, but you feel anxious and on edge the rest of the day.

This made up scenario is actually a common experience for those who suffer from panic attacks. With all the uncomfortable physical sensations that come with these attacks, it’s no wonder that many first time panic attack sufferers end up in the emergency room. These unpleasant somatic sensations can trigger the person into feeling that something really bad is happening to them. The disturbing emotional symptoms can often cause the person to fear that they are going to go insane.  

The Symptoms of Panic Attacks

Panic attacks are characterized by a variety of physical, emotional, and cognitive symptoms. During a panic attack, a person may experience as few as four or as many as all of the following symptoms:

These attacks can come on suddenly, as in the case of those with panic disorder.

Panic attacks can also be triggered by certain stimuli; such as a person with a fear of heights have a panic attack while in an airplane.  Panic attacks typically occur when the person is awake, but they can also take hold when the person is sleeping. Known of as nocturnal panic attacks, these symptoms can wake the person out of their sleep.

Panic attack symptoms will often reach a peak within the first 10 minutes and then slowly lessen. However, the impact of these attacks can be felt all day through an overall sense of anxiety and uneasiness.

Most commonly associated with panic disorder, these attacks can be connected to other mental health disorders, including eating disorders, phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and other mood and anxiety disorders. Panic attacks may also be linked to physical health issues, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), gastroesophaleal reflex disease (GERD), and sleep disorders.

Knowing For Sure if You had a Panic Attack

The only way you can really tell whether or not you had a panic attack is to get evaluated by your doctor. She will be able to complete a full assessment to determine if you indeed had a panic attack and she can rule out some of the potential causes.

She will then provide you with a diagnosis, such as panic disorder.

Once a diagnosis has been made, your doctor will want to get you started on a treatment plan. Depending on your diagnosis, she may want to get you started on medication and she may refer you to a mental health specialist. As treatment progresses, you can expect to develop ways to more effectively mange your panic attacks.


American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

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