Ask the doctor: How do I know if I had a panic attack?

Q. I think I had a panic attack. What are the symptoms and how can I prevent them?


A. First, I’d like to let you know that you are not alone!  Panic disorders are pretty common and 2.4 million people suffer from these attacks in the U.S.

panic attack 300x200 Ask the doctor: How do I know if I had a panic attack? Photo

Do you know the signs of a panic attack?

These attacks are real sensations of sheer terror and assault without forewarning or notice at any time of the day or night. The overpowering fear makes one dread that death is near or that a heart attack is occurring.



During a panic attack, one may sense any or all of these symptoms:

  • Rapid heart rate (feeling that it is beating so hard it will jump out of the chest)
  • Chest pains
  • Hyperventilation or difficulty catching one’s breath
  • Pervasive terror, sense of imminent death or disaster
  • Feeling out of control
  • Sweaty palms
  • Shaking chills
  • Dizziness, faintness, weakness
  • Tinkling of fingers and hands


Risks and Occurrence for Panic Attacks

Fortunately, panic attacks are short in duration, usually less than 10 minutes.  However, symptoms may take much longer to abate.

When someone has suffered from a panic attack, he or she is more susceptible to having another one.  When they recur frequently, a person is diagnosed with suffering from a Panic Disorder.

Studies show that women suffer from panic attacks more than men and that attacks strike in early adulthood.

Conditions associated with increased panic attacks are:

  • Abuse of drugs or alcohol
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Stress from life changes (e.g. relocating homes, marriage, divorce)
  • Change in routine demands (e.g. new job, loss of a job)

While it is not known what actually causes panic attacks, studies pinpoint susceptibility of those who are more apt to have them.  The incidence of panic attacks run in families, strongly suggesting that there is a biological tendency for this condition.


Prevention/ Home Treatment

Although panic attacks cannot be prevented, you can decrease the intensity and frequency by which they strike.

Action steps include:

  • Regular physical exercise. Build up endurance so that faster heartbeats are well tolerated
  • Relaxation exercises. Calming your body and mind releases tension and increases flexibility.  Yoga, Tai Chi and meditation are great outlets for this.
  • Breathing exercises. Inhale deeply, hold for a moment and then breath out.  Do this a few times each day for relaxation.
  • Guided Imagery. Find your “happy place”.  Envision being on a beach and fantasize the smells of the ocean and tropical breezes or other peaceful settings for stress relief.
  • Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy
  • Become Caffeine-free. Caffeine is associated with faster heart beats which is also linked to panic and by having a racing heart, one may fear an oncoming attack.
  • Eliminate or reduce alcohol consumption. Alcohol may induce symptoms similar to those of panic.
  • Eliminate foods with high sugar content
  • Join family therapy. Allow each family member to voice concerns about issues and life changes affecting both the person suffering from panic attacks and others within the family dynamics.
  • Become a member of a support group, forum or chat room

Voicing stressful situations and sharing coping mechanisms are quite helpful in knowing what techniques can be used to decrease panic.  It is also comforting to know that one is not suffering alone.

No one needs to fear the onslaught of panic attacks as the above measures can be help you take back control!