Panic Attack 101: What It Feels Like And What To Do

I experienced my first panic attack when I was 9 years old. I remember waking up in the middle of the night trembling and feeling my heart race, feeling nauseous, and having difficulty breathing. I ran to my parent’s bedroom because I thought I was dying.

By Meghan Dillon3 min read
Panic Attack 101: What It Feels Like And What To Do

I was very lucky that both of my parents had experienced panic attacks before and have a history of anxiety because they knew just what to do at that moment. My dad taught me my favorite breathing technique that I still use to this day (breath in slowly through your nose and slowly out through your mouth) and took me to see a therapist. However, not everyone has the tools to cope with them right in front of them. 

Here are a few important things to know about panic attacks, like how they differ from anxiety attacks, what they feel like, how to calm down, and when you can get panic attacks.

Panic Attack vs. Anxiety Attack

It can be easy to confuse a panic attack with an anxiety attack, but it’s important to acknowledge that the two are different. However, you can still experience them both at the same time. The main difference is that panic attacks are more severe and can hit you suddenly. A panic attack is defined as “an intense and sudden feeling of fear, terror, or discomfort accompanied by several other mental and physical symptoms. The symptoms of panic attacks are often so extreme that they cause severe disruption.”

A panic attack is a sudden intense feeling of fear accompanied by physical symptoms.

An anxiety attack is different because “anxiety generally intensifies over a period of time and is highly correlated with excessive worry about some potential danger — whether real or perceived. If the anticipation of something builds up and the high amount of stress reaches a level where it becomes overwhelming, it may feel like an ‘attack.’”

What Panic Attacks Look and Feel Like

Some of the most common symptoms of a panic attack include trembling or shaking, accelerated heart rate, chest pain, hyperventilation, sweating, dizziness, nausea, and numbness. Many of these symptoms are physical and are often associated with an intense sense of fear.

Common symptoms include trembling, chest pain, hyperventilation, sweating, and dizziness.

Physical symptoms like chest pain often lead those experiencing it for the first time to confuse the panic attack with a heart attack. One of the most famous incidents of this was when NBA star Kevin Love had a panic attack during a November 2017 game. He spoke about his panic attack and opened up about his health struggles in an interview with Carson Daly on the Today Show. Both men were candid about their symptoms in the interview, and it’s worth the watch if you’ve ever had a panic attack or know somebody who has.

How To Calm Down from a Panic Attack

Before I go into ways to calm down from a panic attack, I want to emphasize the importance of therapy. If you’re experiencing panic or anxiety attacks, it’s a good idea to talk to a professional about it. I would recommend seeing a cognitive behavioral therapist who can teach you coping mechanisms tailored to your needs and teach you how to rewire your mind to deal with anxiety and panic disorder daily.

When you’re trying to calm down from a panic attack, it’s important to be mindful and aware of your symptoms because different symptoms often require different ways of calming down. One way to calm down many symptoms such as hyperventilation and numbness is to practice deep breathing. More severe symptoms like chest pain might require you to leave the room and deep breathe on your own, while some can recover from a mild panic attack around others.

A cognitive behavioral therapist can teach you custom coping skills to use every day.

Other ways to cope with a panic attack are practicing mindfulness, muscle relaxation techniques, repeating self-assuring mantras, and drinking tea with lavender or chamomile.

When You Can Get Panic Attacks

One of the scariest parts about panic attacks is that they can happen anytime and anywhere, even when you’re sleeping. Most of the panic attacks that I've had as an adult (especially when my grandparents died and during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic) have been nocturnal panic attacks that usually only last for a few minutes and wake me up from my sleep. In my experience, nocturnal panic attacks happen out of the blue in the middle of the night, and I wake up shaking and covered in sweat. I’m able to calm down using techniques like deep breathing, mindfulness, and muscle relaxation techniques.

It’s often difficult to fall back asleep after a nocturnal panic attack (even though it drains every bit of energy out of you), and my coping mechanisms to fall back asleep afterward include drinking lavender or chamomile tea and meditation. I would recommend looking up guided meditations on YouTube to help you fall back asleep.

Panic attacks can happen anytime and anywhere, even when you’re sleeping. 

Like panic attacks during the day, experts aren’t entirely sure of what causes nocturnal panic attacks. Craig N. Sawchuk, Ph.D., L.P. writes, “It's not known what causes panic attacks. Underlying factors may include genetics, stress and certain changes in the way parts of your brain work. In some cases, an underlying condition, such as a sleep disorder or thyroid problem, can cause panic-like signs and symptoms. Talk with your doctor about your symptoms and whether you need any tests for a possible underlying condition.”

Closing Thoughts

Panic attacks are scary, but they’re easier to get through when you can recognize that you’re having one and learn how to cope with it. Whether it’s by seeing a therapist, practicing mindfulness, or meditation, there are plenty of healthy ways to cope with panic attacks.

Readers make the world go round. Make your voice heard in the official Evie reader survey.