Panic Attack Symptoms:
How They Trick You

by Dave Carbonell, PhD

When your body gets flooded with powerful panic attack symptoms, it's no wonder that you fear that a terrible calamity is about to overwhelm you.

Consider the typical anxiety attack symptoms.

Typical Panic Attack Symptoms

People can experience a wide variety of powerful physical sensations as part of a panic attack. The most common sensations include:

* racing heart (and/or other changes in perceived heart activity, so that it might seem to beat louder, faster, harder, or slower, and perhaps miss beats as well.)

* chest pain, tightness, and heaviness

* feeling dizzy and/or light headed

* numbness and tingling in the hands and feet

* labored breathing, feeling short of breath, and hyperventilation

...and more

In addition, you may experience a variety of other physical discomforts, including:

* sweating

* feeling "hyper" and filled with energy

* stomach upset

* feeling pressure to urinate or empty your bowels

* weakness in major muscles, especially the legs

* dry mouth

* hot and cold flashes


These powerful and upsetting physical symptoms will scare people into experiencing a variety of symptomatic thoughts (yes, thoughts can be symptoms), such as:

* I'm dying

* I'm going crazy

* I'm about to faint or lose control

* I'm about to make a fool of myself

* I have to escape from here

* I have to pretend that nothing is wrong

* Stop thinking about this!


And the physical panic attack symptoms, coupled with the scary thoughts you experience, will probably lead you to certain characteristic behaviors, such as:

* Holding your breath

* Tensing up the major muscles of your body

* Fleeing the scene

* Trying to distract yourself

What causes panic attack symptoms?

Although these symptoms are powerful and unpleasant, and seem to indicate some terrible emergency, the truth is very different. Panic attacks feel scary, but are not dangerous.

What causes panic attack symptoms? There are two principal explanations.

Your Emergency Alert System

Most of the powerful and unwanted physical symptoms of a panic attack are the physical changes you would experience if you were suddenly faced with a threat, like a tiger, and your body quickly geared up to give you the energy and signal you needed to fight (or flee) for your life. These changes would be very useful if you were fighting a tiger, but very uncomfortable if you are not. Here's what happens when your body mistakenly gets the signal of a tiger.

Your heart speeds up, to promote the energy you need to fight the tiger and stay alive. But when you're just killing time in a waiting room, you experience it as disturbing.

Blood moves away from your digestive tract, and into your major muscles. That would be a good thing, if a large predator were trying to make a meal out of you, because there wouldn't be any point in wasting energy digesting your own food. But when you're only getting a haircut, you'll notice uncomfortable sensations in your digestive tract as digestion suddenly stops.

Blood moves away from the surface of your skin, and into your muscles and deeper tissue. This is good, when you're fighting a tiger, because you'll probably get cut, and this change means you'll lose less blood. But when you're simply driving on a freeway, you'll notice numbness, clamminess, and temperature changes in your skin, particularly your toes and fingers.

Your muscles tense up as you brace yourself to resist a physical assault. This will help you stay on your feet, always a plus when fighting a tiger. But it just seems upsetting when you're in the grocery store.

All these preparations build up heat in your body, and so you sweat. This is good when you're fighting a tiger, because sweating is how the body cools itself. In addition, whenever you're being chased by a large, hairy predator, it's good to be as slippery as possible. But it won't seem so useful to you while meeting with your son's math teacher.

So a lot of panic attack symptoms are the result of your brain getting fooled into sending out a signal of emergency, when there is no emergency to defend against.

Your Breathing

Many of the physical symptoms of a panic attack are caused by breathing in a short and shallow way. This kind of breathing leads directly to such symptoms as feeling lightheaded; chest pain or heaviness; increase in heart rate; numbness and tingling; dry mouth, and more. It also gives you the disturbing sensation of running out of air.

It's my belief, based on 20 years of helping patients with panic disorder, that people with panic disorder tend to be bad breathers, and can benefit greatly from learning how to breathe more comfortably. Unfortunately, people who struggle with panic often don't recognize that their breathing technique is causing them trouble. I also find that most explanations of how to do "deep breathing" leave out a crucial step, and this probably contributes to people's skepticism about breathing exercises.

However, I think most people with panic will get a lot of benefit from working with their breathing in the manner I describe.

Your Watchdog Needs Retraining

If you experience recurrent panic attacks, you have a problem similar to the problem of an overprotective watchdog. A dog that barks at burglars is a good helper. A dog that barks at kids running across your lawn, and squirrels as well, that's too much of a good thing. There's nothing wrong with the dog. The dog just needs training, to distinguish the burglars from the kids. If you have panic attacks, it doesn't mean there's anything wrong with your body. It means that you, too, need retraining, because your brain is inadvertently sending you a signal of danger when there isn't any, and that's what leads to the panic symptoms.

You can start this retraining process by finding different ways of responding to panic. For a systematic guide through the process of desensitization to panic, take a look at my Panic Attacks Workbook.

If you're looking for professional help in the Chicago area, I offer individual sessions in my Chicago office at 180 North Michigan Avenue. During the duration of the Coronavirus emergency, I offer sessions via phone and teleconference.

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© 2010-2024 David Carbonell, PhD.  Anxiety Coach® is a registered mark.
P.O. Box 256539, Chicago, IL 60625

Last updated on June 25, 2024