Am I Having a Panic Attack?

One in 4 Americans has had a panic attack at some point.  Panic is scary, exhausting, and potentially embarrassing - that’s the bad news.  The good news? Treatment for panic is straightforward and effective.  The Savvy Psychologist helps you get a handle on the 3 levels of panic.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #46

Twenty-three percent of Americans - almost 1 in 4 - have had a panic attack.  ABC News correspondent Dan Harris (poor guy) even had a panic attack on Good Morning America in front of 5 million viewers.  Check out the embarrassing footage and accompanying article.

In the article, Harris describes the attack like this:  “I was overtaken by a massive, irresistible blast of fear. It felt like the world was ending. My heart was thumping. I was gasping for air. I had pretty much lost the ability to speak.”

See also: What Is Panic Disorder?


But if you watch the footage, what you’ll notice most is the lack of drama.  He’s not screaming or writhing around. There is fear in his eyes, and he looks a little sheepish, but it doesn’t look on the outside how he describes it on the inside.  Which is exactly the point: Panic is most often an internal experience. So what’s going on inside?  Let’s take a look at the symptoms:.

What Are the Symptoms of a Panic Attack?

We’ll unofficially chunk symptoms into two groups: physical symptoms and cognitive symptoms (those thoughts that race through your head).

The physical symptoms include:

  • A fast heart rate or pounding heart
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Feeling like you’re choking, smothering, or can’t get air
  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Nausea or other stomach problems
  • Feeling dizzy or like you’re going to faint
  • Numbness or tingling, often in your fingers or toes

The cognitive symptoms include:

  • Thinking “this isn’t real”
  • Thinking you’re going to throw up
  • Thinking you’re going to pass out
  • Thinking you’re having a heart attack
  • Thinking you’re dying
  • Thinking you’re about to lose control of yourself
  • Thinking you’re going crazy

And how long does it last?  It takes about 5-10 minutes for symptoms to work up to a full-blown panic attack.  After it peaks, it can subside over the course of a few minutes, but could also last as long as a few hours.  Afterwards, understandably, you’re exhausted.  

What Causes a Panic Attack?

There is no single reason for panic attacks, but in a nutshell, a panic attack is your body’s reaction to a perceived threat.  Panic is the fight or flight response gone haywire, much like your car alarm going off when, say, a shopping cart hits your bumper.

That said, common reasons for a panic attack include the following:

Reason #1: Misinterpreting a body sensation as dangerous.  Folks with panic are often exquisitely attuned to their own inner workings.  They’re in touch with their bodies, which is good, but sometimes it goes overboard: “Why did I have that pain in my left arm?  I must be having a heart attack!  I must be dying!”  And panic ensues.

Reason #2: A frightening thought.  On an old Sex and the City episode, Miranda had a panic attack after buying a fancy new apartment but realizing she could choke and die alone, with no one discovering her body for weeks.  A similarly threatening thought might trigger a panic attack for you.

Reason #3: Out of the blue. Many panic attacks seem to come out of the blue - perhaps even while you’re asleep - though in hindsight, they often occur during a stressful time, like moving to a new home, divorce, holidays, or illness.  The accumulated stress explodes into panic after something relatively benign - being startled, a jolt of adrenaline after nodding off in a meeting - lights the fuse.

Next, what’s the difference between a one-off panic attack and the more serious panic disorder?


Medical Disclaimer
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets.