The Physical Symptoms of Panic Attacks

Panic Attacks and Somatic Symptoms

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The physical symptoms of panic attacks. Photo © Microsoft

Panic attacks can strike at any time without a particular warning or trigger. These unexpected and persistent attacks are the main symptom for panic disorder sufferers. However, panic attacks can also be a sign of other mental health conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), and specific phobias.

Panic attacks are thought to be associated with the fight-or-flight stress response or the way in which a person reacts to a real or imagined threat.

The flight-or-fight response is thought to be triggered more easily in panic attack sufferers. When this stress reaction takes ahold, a person will feel as though severally wrong even though is not reason or threat.

Panic attacks can are often experienced through a combination of physical and cognitive symptoms. For the panic attack sufferer, somatic sensations may be perceived of as an uncomfortable, nerve-wracking, and overall frightening ordeal.  

Read ahead to learn more about the top symptoms of panic attacks.

Accelerated Heart Rate

Heart palpitations are one of the common symptoms of a panic attack. Accelerated heart rate occurs as a person becomes acutely aware of his own heart rate, feeling as though it is rapidly beating or irregular. Many people with panic disorder feel frightened by this symptom, often thinking that the accelerated heart rate will lead to a medical emergency.

Excessive Sweating

As a panic attack begins to take hold, it is not unusual for a person to sweat profusely. For some, this excessive sweating may be further exacerbated by the fear associated by panic attacks. For example, during a panic attack, it is not uncommon to feel frightened as the symptoms take hold, this nervousness leads to more physical symptoms, including excessive sweating.

In this way, panic attacks can be a viscous cycle of physical symptoms causing fears which leads to more intense physical sensations.

Trembling or Shaking

It is not unusual to tremble or shake uncontrollably as a panic attack takes hold. Many panic sufferers feel embarrassed about this symptom, as it is often the most visible to others. To help control trembling and shaking, many panic attack sufferers will make fists and gently squeeze their hands and fingers tight. This may help bring a sense of control over these symptoms.

Shortness of Breath

During a panic attack, breathing can become difficult. Shortness of breath can cause the panic attack sufferer to feel as though he cannot breathe or isn’t getting enough air. This hyperventilation is typically described as suffocating, choking, or smothering sensations.

Nausea or Abdominal Pain

Given all the difficult physical and mental symptoms one goes through during a panic attack, it is not surprising that it may also lead to nausea. Feelings of abdominal pain can also occur during the attack.


Chest Pain

Often described as one of the more frightening symptoms of panic attacks, chest pain is the most common symptom that leads panic attack sufferers to seek immediate help. Many people who have chest pain during a panic attack will admit themselves to an emergency hospital, afraid that they are having a heart attack or even possibly dying/

Feeling Dizzy, lightheaded, Unsteady, or Faint

When panic-induced hyperventilation occurs, carbon dioxide levels in the bloodstream are reduced. This decrease of carbon dioxide can result in numerous physical sensations, including dizziness and lightheadedness. When feeling unsteady or faint, panic sufferers often find solace in sitting down in a quiet area and taking a few deep breaths or even trying a breathing exercise.

Numbness or Tingling Sensations

Fingers, hands, feet, and toes are often the most susceptible areas to feelings of numbness and tingling. Sometimes described as pins and needles sensations, these symptoms can be very uncomfortable. At times, numbness can contribute to the cognitive symptoms of derealization and depersonalization which are common to panic sufferers.

Chills or Hot Flushes

Panic attacks can bring about a sudden sense of chilliness or heat. Some panic attack sufferers will get the cold chills which can lead to shivering and clamminess. Others may become very hot, experiencing flushes that can cause heat sensations to the upper body and temporary redness to the skin, especially in the face and neck.

Panic attacks can vary from person-to-person, as some sufferers will experience many of these symptoms while others will only have a few. For most, symptoms begin with a sense of dread, fear, and anxiety. Panic attacks often reach a peak within 10 minutes before slowly subsiding.

It is important that you get help if you suspect that you are experiencing panic attacks. Your doctor will be able to determine if you are suffering from panic disorder, a different mental health disorder, or a medical condition that is causing these attacks. Through professional help, you may be able to better manage these attacks and cope with your symptoms.  


American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

Belleville, G. Folds-Busque, G., & Marchand, A. (2010). Characteristics of Panic Disorder Patients Consulting an Emergency Department with Noncardiac Chest Pain, Primary Psychiatry, 17(3), 35-42.

Bourne, E. J. (2011). The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook. 5th ed. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

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