What does a Panic Attack feel like?

To understand what a panic attack feels like, we have to first look at what is actually happening in your body.  Research is still being done to better understand exactly why panic attacks occur and why to specific people. But, we do know some of the basics. Panic attacks are just one symptom of anxiety and also do not happen to all those with anxiety.  Experiencing a panic attack also does not mean you have anxiety, but may be caused by a temporary situation. Read on to better understand the mechanics and sensations of what a panic attack is.

Fight, Flight OR Freeze?

The system that allows a panic attack to occur is called the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and initiates in the amygdala, the fear center of your brain.  The SNS is the same system that helped us survive for many years – think “caveman” era needs. We no longer are living among sabretooth tigers, but the SNS is still very much intact for more modern emergencies.  Unfortunately, anxiety can hijack this system and use it to produce unnecessary panic. During a panic attack, your mind and body are convinced you are facing peril danger. This system can be triggered by specific thoughts, stress, lack of self care.  What is typically a safe situation gets interpreted to be very unsafe, thus setting off this system.

In general, a panic attack feels “like you are dying,” but of course that is not the case.  Let’s break down the symptoms to better understand why it feels this way.

What is happening Purpose in SNS What it feels like
Increased muscle tension Ready to fight or run I am being squeezed
Increased respiratory rate Improve oxygen intake I can’t breathe, I am choking
Increased heart rate Pump blood faster to vital organs I am having a heart attack
Reduced blood flow to hands, feet Direct all blood to vital organs I can’t feel my limbs
Increased sweat production Improve grip for weapons I am suffocating
Increased adrenaline Preparation for burst of energy to fight or run I am not in control of my body
Increased oxygen to brain Improve decision making and vital functioning I am going to faint (dizziness, disoriented)
Dilated pupils and narrowed vision Allow more light to retina, increase intensity of focus I can’t see normally (tunnel vision)
Increased sensitivity to sounds Allow heightened awareness of surroundings Everything is so loud and scary