Panic attacks are often experienced as overwhelming feelings of fear and dread. These attacks are often characterized by uncomfortable physical sensations, disturbing thoughts, and difficult emotions. For example, when panic strikes, a person may start off suddenly feeling very nervous and anxious. Somatic sensations, such as sweating, heart palpitations, and chest pain may begin to take hold. Strong emotions combined with troublesome physical sensations may contribute to fears felt by the panic sufferer, such as a fear that the attack will lead to a loss of control over oneself.
Even though panic attack symptoms typically reach a peak within 10 minutes before gradually subsiding, the effects of the attack can impact the person much longer. Many panic attack sufferers frequently describe their symptoms as an upsetting and even downright terrifying experience.
Panic attacks typically start off with feelings of fear, anxiety, and apprehension, accompanied by a combination of 4 or more of the following symptoms:
Heart palpitations or accelerated heart rate
- Nausea or abdominal pain
- Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint
- Derealization or depersonalization
- Fear of losing control or going crazy
- Fear of dying
- Feelings of numbness or tingling sensations
- Chills or hot flushes
- Excessive sweating
- Trembling or shaking
- Shortness of breath
- Feeling of choking
- Chest pain
Panic attacks are most usually associated with panic disorder but have also been known to occur along with other mental health disorders, such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), eating disorders, agoraphobia, and other specific phobias.
Additionally, there are two different types of panic attacks: expected and unexpected. Expected panic attacks are those that are triggered by some type of cue or stimulus in the environment. For example, a person with a fear of heights (acrophobia) may have a panic attack when in an airplane or when on a top floor of a tall building. A person with PTSD may have a panic attack when in an environment that reminds her of the past traumatic event.
Unexpected panic attacks, on the other hand, or those that arise suddenly without any known reason or trigger. Since these attacks happen out-of-the-blue, they can be perceived of as extremely frightening.
Panic attack symptoms typically take hold while one is awake, however, it is possible for panic attacks to strike while you are fast asleep. Known as nocturnal panic attacks, these attacks can potentially contribute to sleep disorders and leave you feeling tired throughout your day.
All panic attacks can be perceived of as a frightening experiencing but can be even more terrifying if they startle you out of your sleep. For example, you may wake up due to uncomfortable physical sensations, such as shaking, accelerated heart rate, and chest pain. You may feel confused as to whether you are dreaming or not, feeling a sense of distance from yourself and your sense of reality.