What is a panic attack and symptom check list

So what is a panic attack? Many of us experience a panic attack at least once in our lifetime. The experience of a panic attack should not be underestimated it is terrifying.

Although panic attacks share a number of symptoms with anxiety the intensity of the symptoms are very different. A panic attack is a sudden intensity of anxiety symptoms where the person has an overwhelming sense of a catastrophe. The feelings and bodily sensations are so intense that It’s common to think that you will die, have a heart attack or faint at the worst point of a panic attack. The peak of a panic attack can last up to ten minutes although people have reported this lasting longer.

Sometimes the trigger for a panic attack is clear, like being faced with a lion for example you would expect to experience symptoms of panic. Sometimes the trigger is less clear and people can report no trigger at all and this can be confusing, which is why people come to the conclusion the threat is the physical symptoms and therefore something is wrong with the body.


Our bodies just get it wrong at times and respond with panic when you are not in any immediate danger, when this occurs we often look for meaning or misinterpret the symptoms we are experiencing as a danger in themselves.


A panic attack is the body perceiving that there is a danger and responding to it. So your body is in good working condition but the mind may have made up the threat so there’s not actually a danger.


Panic attacks are so frightening that people quickly develop a fear of having another one, when this happens our minds tune into any symptoms of anxiety the body experiences and sends a warning to the brain that another attack might be on the way. This can lead to a constant feeling of anxiety panic attacks can become more frequent. People report that they feel they are constantly checking or monitoring themselves.


When panic attacks begin to occur on a regular basis, impact a persons day to day functioning and the person begins to fear having another panic attack this would be diagnosed as having panic disorder and it’s time to get help. It’s useful to always initially see your General Practitioner for a physical check up and to discuss your concerns.


The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) is a tool that list symptoms and criteria that mental health professionals use to diagnose a person. The DSM highlights that

“ A panic attack is experiencing 4 or more intense feelings of anxiety for longer than 10 minutes where you fear a catastrophic outcome”.


Panic attack symptom check list.

Heart pounding / palpitations

Sweating / trembling or shaking

Shortness of breath

Chest pain

Nausea or abdominal discomfort.

Feeling dizzy and disorientated.

Feeling faint or lightheaded.

Having a dry mouth.

Fear of collapsing or fainting.

Fear of losing control or going crazy.

Thinking that you could be dying or having a heart attack.

Numbness or tingling

A choking feeling

Chills or hot flushes


De-realisation / depersonalization


When to get help

If you are having more regular panic attacks and they are impacting your quality of life. If you are developing a fear of having another panic attack so are beginning to avoid things or situations. If you notice general anxiety levels increasing alongside the panic attacks. Visit your general practitioner to discuss your symptoms in the first instance and to have a medical check up.

The bottom line

Panic attacks can be very frightening and intense, but they are not dangerous. An attack won’t cause you any physical harm.

They are treatable and the most effective treatment for panic attacks is cognitive behavioural therapy and if you have not experienced panic attacks for longer than a year then it’s likely you will require no more than 6-8 therapy sessions.

For more information and how CBT can help click here  – CBT and Panic Attacks


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Sarah Rees

Sarah is a fully accredited Cognitive Behavioural Therapist and mental health writer delivering Modern Mental Health for you and with you in Mind. Sarah is the author of ‘The CBT Journal’ which helps you write for your wellbeing incorporating CBT techniques. For more information and to keep in touch have a look at sarahdrees.co.uk.