Am I having a Panic Attack??

I often talk to clients who wonder if they have experienced a panic attack. Clients describe pain in their chest, shortness of breath, sweating, and dizziness to the point of sending them to the emergency room. They fear that they are experiencing a life-threatening medical concern. Fortunately, for those prone to anxiety, these are common symptoms of a panic attack.*

You may be wondering what constitutes a panic attack and how you know if you have experienced one? The mental health diagnostic manual (DSM – 5), which is basically the mental health handbook, describes a panic attack as “an abrupt surge of intense fear or intense discomfort that reaches a peak within minutes.” A panic attack is so intrusive it causes you to be unable to do anything besides focus on your pain and worry.

To truly identify a panic attack, one must experience at least four of the following symptoms:

  • Heart racing
  • Sweating or cold flashes
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Shortness of breath
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Chest pain
  • Nausea or abdominal pain
  • Dizziness or light-headed
  • Numbness or tingling, usually in the hands and feet
  • Feeling detached from reality or from oneself
  • Fear of losing control or “going crazy”
  • Fear of death

As well, I often see symptoms of uncontrollable crying and inability to focus. Panic attacks are all-consuming for a short time. Fortunately, panic attacks will fade and one should feel better within minutes after the peak of the panic attack.

There are a number of forms of therapy to help with panic attacks such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, to name a couple. There are also medications to help with anxiety. During my work with clients who have panic attacks, most show significant improvement once engaged in treatment for 4-6 weeks! That is a short time to begin to feel relief from such a difficult experience. If you find yourself having the above symptoms, please find a mental health professional. You can live a better life now.

Whitney Owens, LPC, MA

*If you do have medical concerns or are experiencing severe discomfort, please follow up with a medical professional.