A panic attack is a sudden overwhelming feeling of dread, anxiety, or fear. They can come on suddenly for no reason or can be triggered by certain phobias or fears. Most panic attacks share many common symptoms, but the one defining characteristic of panic attacks is the crippling sense of fear.
Panic attacks can happen once or twice in someone’s life, or they can be chronic and happen on and off for years. You may not realize you’re having a panic attack at first. Some people describe the symptoms as feeling like they’re having a heart attack. The most common feeling many people have is a sense of dread and impending doom and the urge to fight or flee.
If you’re experiencing a feeling of fear or dread and have at least four of the following symptoms, you may be having a panic attack. Panic attack symptoms include:
- Chills or hot flashes
- Chest pain or tightness in the chest
- Dizziness, feeling faint or light-headed
- Feeling like you’re choking
- Irregular heartbeat, feeling like your heart is pounding in your chest, or heart palpitations
- Numbness or tingling, especially in your fingertips
- Nausea or an upset stomach
- Trouble breathing or feeling like you’re being smothered
- Shakiness or trembling all over
- Feeling detached from events around you or feeling like you’re looking at things from far away
- A sudden sense of dread or feeling like you’re dying
- Feeling like you’re losing control or going crazy
- Tightness in the chest or trouble breathing
Some researchers believe that panic attacks may be part of an instinctual primal reaction to danger and that some people have panic attacks when they subconsciously pick up on a threat. Some panic attacks have specific triggers, such as driving over a bridge, seeing someone who resembles a person that hurt you in the past, or being on a plane. Other panic attacks have no discernible cause.
How long do panic attacks last? According to health care experts, it varies from person to person. The actual panic attack lasts just a few minutes, but the symptoms that go along with it can last for hours. Feeling short of breath, having heart palpitations, or feeling light-headed or dizzy are common symptoms while you’re in the middle of the panic attack. Some people visit the hospital, thinking they’re having a heart attack. Even after the panicky feeling itself subsides, you may still experience the aftereffects of the panic attack symptoms.
As a general rule of thumb, panic attacks typically come on suddenly, with symptoms reaching their peak after about 10 minutes. The attack itself lasts around 20 to 30 minutes, after which the majority of the symptoms subside. Panic attacks release a lot of adrenaline, and you could experience an “adrenaline hangover” afterward.
An adrenaline hangover is the feeling you have after the level of adrenaline in your body goes back down. You may feel groggy, lethargic, or weak. After a panic attack, the severe effects may dissipate, but the sharp feelings of fight or flight and the panicky response may leave you feeling woozy and disoriented.
If panicky symptoms last several hours or the better part of a day, it’s more likely to be ongoing high anxiety rather than a panic attack. These episodes of high anxiety can last days or longer.
It’s possible to have multiple panic attacks that come in waves for hours at a time. It may feel like the panic attack is lasting hours, but each peak is a single attack. In these cases, some of the symptoms may not go away entirely. If your heart keeps racing for an extended period of time, you should seek medical attention to monitor the condition and help relax the palpitations.
Panic attacks are often associated with anxiety disorders, with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) being the most common. Both high anxiety and panic attacks can either have triggers or have no discernible cause. GAD can be treated with medication and therapy. When it’s controlled, you might have fewer and shorter panic attacks.
Having repeated panic attacks or waves of panic attacks over several days is cause for concern. The side effects of panic attacks put your body in a constant state of stress, which can be damaging to your physical health. Furthermore, high anxiety and multiple panic attacks are bad for your mental health, aggravating conditions like anxiety and depression and creating phobophobia, which is a fear of fear. Fearing another panic attack can place your mind and body in a pre-panic state and take a toll on your everyday life.
Waves of anxiety attacks can compound and increase the feelings of helplessness that are part of panic attacks. This can make coping with a long-lasting panic attack feel impossible. A panic attack can make you feel helpless, and being unable to control the feelings of fear and dread can make the panicky feelings worse.
If you feel yourself in the grip of a panic attack, there are a few things you can do to help ease the feelings of fear and feeling trapped. Breathing techniques, such as those used in Lamaze classes, or “box breathing” may be helpful.
It might be helpful to reach out to friends, family, or a therapist when you feel a panic attack coming on. Some people find that using meditation techniques can help with panic attacks. For those who practice daily meditation, focusing on the sense of calm from their practice can help ease some of the fearfulness of a panic attack.
Preventing panic attacks can start with reducing stress in your everyday life. Eating right and drinking plenty of water can help, but regular exercise and proper sleep hygiene are even more integral to stress reduction. Getting regular exercise, which for most people is 150 minutes or more of elevated heart rate activity per week, has been shown to help elevate your mood and offset some of the feelings of anxiety and depression that fuel panic attacks. Getting enough sleep (six to eight hours per night) also helps reduce stress overall.
When you reduce stressors in your life, the threshold for panic attacks lessens. Practicing daily meditation or engaging in a meditative exercise like yoga can help you frame your mental state and focus your thoughts. If you meditate daily, you may be able to use your meditation techniques to help lessen a panic attack when it happens or prevent one from starting entirely.
Panic attacks typically only last for about half an hour, but the effects on your mental health and daily life can last much longer. If panic attacks are affecting your job, relationships, or ability to engage in daily life, then seeking treatment can help.