People often say, “If you have a panic attack, you’ll know it.” That’s often true after you learn a little bit about them. But in the midst of your first panic attack, you are more likely wondering if you’re having a heart attack, an intense allergic reaction of some sort, or possibly even losing your mind.

Symptoms of a panic attack can be physical, psychological or a combination of both. They can vary so greatly from person to person that it can be hard to know exactly what’s going on. It can hit briefly for just a few moments or be longer lasting. The causes are as varied as the symptoms. There is one universal truth, though. It’s an extremely upsetting experience.

Many people will have a panic attack at some point in their lifetime. For most, it will pass and become a distant memory. For others, panic attacks recur when under great stress or with seemingly random frequency.

It’s important to distinguish between normal anxiety, which can be intense at times, and a panic attack. There are some telltale signs that may indicate you are having a panic attack.

1. It happens “out of the blue.”

You may be in the middle of a nice walk, on your way home from an enjoyable night out, at work or just putzing around the house. Suddenly you feel completely out of sorts. Maybe you were worrying about something, but the intense feelings that arise abruptly are completely out of proportion.

2. Your heart is racing or you are short of breath.

You may also feel tightness in your chest, trouble swallowing or dizziness. The body’s physical response to anxiety can mimic symptoms of a medical problem. If you think you might be having a heart attack, go to the emergency room or call 911. It’s always better to have it checked out. Don’t be embarrassed if it’s not a heart attack. Rest assured, you won’t be the first person, or the last, that the ER staff has seen for this reason.

3. You are having a feeling of intense fear or impending doom.

You may not know exactly what you feel afraid of or why you feel consumed with dread. You just feel scared, for no apparent reason. More scared than you may have ever felt before.

4. Your mind is racing.

Your thoughts seem to be running rampant. You can’t focus on anything. You can’t concentrate or complete the simplest of tasks. You don’t know what to do next.

5. You feel like you’re losing control.

The fear and racing mind can be overwhelming. You may have moments of surreal feelings. In short, you feel like you are losing your mind. Going crazy right before your very eyes. But remember what they say, a crazy person doesn’t know they are crazy. It’s not something you can feel happening as if you are stepping over some psychological brink. It’s more likely a symptom of a panic attack.

Any or all of these symptoms can be disconcerting and frightening. Do whatever you can to help yourself relax. Take some deep breaths, find a friend to talk to, do something creative like painting or gardening, whatever it might be that settles you down when you are stressed. It will work when you are having a panic attack, too.

Be sure to talk to your physician if you experience your symptoms repeatedly. Treatment is available and generally very effective.

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