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Woman experiencing anxiety

Am I having a panic attack?

Differentiating normal worry from panic disorder

Everyone’s life comes with the occasional worry. If you’re experiencing a difficult time, it’s not uncommon to worry a lot and feel anxious — that’s normal. But sometimes that worry can turn into a panic disorder. How can you tell if that’s what is happening to you? 

A panic attack is not uncommon. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) says about 11 percent of people in the United States have a panic attack each year. If you have ever experienced one of these, it can be truly frightening and might land you in the emergency department thinking you’re experiencing a heart attack.  

Symptoms of a panic attack

The symptoms of a panic attack are physical as well as mental — the NIMH says you might feel:  

  • A feeling of being out of control, or a fear of death or impending doom 
  • An intense worry about when the next panic attack will happen 
  • A fear or avoidance of places where panic attacks have occurred in the past. 

Physical symptoms during a panic attack can include: 

  • Pounding or racing heart 
  • Sweating 
  • Chills 
  • Trembling 
  • Difficulty breathing 
  • Weakness or dizziness 
  • Tingly or numb hands 
  • Chest pain 
  • Stomach pain or nausea. 

Seek professional help for panic attacks

Don’t feel guilty or bad about going to the emergency department; with these symptoms, it’s always best to be on the safe side and rule out a cardiac arrest. But once you know that you may be prone to panic attacks, there are ways to help. Seek out a behavioral health provider, who can help you with both medications and mental strategies to reduce the likelihood of having a panic attack.

It’s important to talk to a professional to ensure you don’t have any physical issues, such as hyperthyroidism, that could be causing the attacks. Panic disorder can also just happen on its own; it can have a genetic component; or it can be triggered by a trauma. It usually starts in the late teens or early adulthood. But rest assured, there are many types of treatment that can help.

Calming techniques: deep breathing for panic attacks

If you think you’re having a panic attack right now, practice some deep breathing. This can have a calming mental effect while also addressing the physiological reaction. To practice calming breathing: 

  1. Sit or lie comfortably. 
  2. Take a breath in through the nose for about four seconds. 
  3. Hold the breath for two seconds. 
  4. Release the breath slowly, taking about 6 seconds to breathe out.  
  5. Pause and repeat.
To speak with someone about your feelings schedule an appointment with your primary care physician if needed. If you need a doctor, TidalHealth has providers located near you as well as the TidalHealth Crisis Center and other resources near you
Profile picture for user Ellen Costello
Contributing Author
Ellen Costello is a longtime Delmarva resident who spends her free time getting outdoors with her children and their beloved (and very active) dog for adventures in the region’s outstanding parks and ...

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