Panic Attack Symptoms

Are your panic attack symptoms due to true panic and anxiety, or something else?

This is question Number One (with question Number Two being: now that I know I have panic attacks, how do I stop them?) Not only was I confused by this first question when I first started to experience panic, I was also very frustrated by the lack of clear answers I was able to find.

I had symptoms that were consistent, like a squeezing tightness in my chest, a racing heart rate or irregular heartbeat, sweating, tingling in my arms and hands, pressure in my head, dizziness, nausea…

Symptoms that only appeared sporadically, such as ringing in my ears, dry mouth, a burning sensation in the back of my head, tunnel vision…

And post-panic attack symptoms that made no sense at all (at least to any of the doctors I consulted with): fever, trembling and muscle twitching, and EXTREME sudden and overwhelming exhaustion that was so bad, I would drop to the floor on the spot to recover. Tired, they were ok with, but the level of exhaustion I would describe only elicited blank stares or a patronizing, “Right…”

It was all terrifying. See if your symptoms are on this list. 

caught in a repeating nightmare

Going to the doctor for my panic attack symptoms was frustrating and demoralizing. No one ‘got it,’ and almost every appointment ended with an arrogant look of You-Are-Over-Reacting-So-Just-Go-Home-And-Relax that became all too familiar.

“Do you like to read, or – as one doc even asked – KNIT?” (Apologies to all you gifted knitters out there! It just wasn't a helpful suggestion for me)

Infuriated, my next thought also became bitterly familiar, “You are kidding me, right???” I felt like I was trapped in a nightmarish version of Groundhog Day… (though dying each time like Bill Murray’s character would have actually given me relief. Yes my thoughts got crazier and crazier...)


Westernized healthcare, while highly effective and miraculous for some, did very little to help me understand and recover from panic. As soon as a doctor would rule out – by his or her definition – a true emergency or life-threatening condition, my symptoms were dismissed as ‘just stress,’ and I would be sent home.

Why? Not many are very well equipped to help. And even those who have found effective tools for managing symptoms still only address the surface layers of the story and miss seeing the bigger picture. The bigger WHY.

The unseen world is less honorable in today's society though this is the crux of what needs to change. Panic and anxiety are invisible and are often treated as a weakness in our material-focused culture.We have to learn how to 'see' with new eyes, but more about that later... ;)

Ok, so my panic attack symptoms are JUST stress related. But help! I still can’t breathe!


The hardest symptom for me to deal with was the one that NEVER went away: not being able to catch my breath. But was this the same as shortness of breath?

As it turns out, no.

After several trips to the ER, complete with EKGs, blood and breathing tests, a 24-hr episode of wearing a Holter monitor, I finally resigned myself to the fact that my ‘shortness of breath’ was not the same as the ‘shortness of breath’ someone experiences when having a heart attack.

I surrendered.

But I still needed help; I could NOT take a deep breath. And the well-meaning therapists and even some doctors who identified my suffering as stress, all sent me home with a ‘prescription’ of deep breathing exercises as an antidote for my worst panic attack symptoms. What a disaster!!!

Tell a person who can’t take a deep breath to focus on their breathing? That's like asking someone to open a locked door without giving them the key... keep focusing on that knob, and it will turn eventually... not! 

Every attempt at diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breathing, only made me even more aware of the fact that I could NOT catch my breath. Talk about being on the fast track to another panic attack!

Breathing 101 
(from a post-panicker's point of view)

I have identified several types of ‘I’m having a hard time breathing,’ and none of them have anything to do with having a heart attack (though make sure you have your doctor rule this out first, as I did mine):

  1. Tightness in the lungs 
    This has happened to me a few times and is very different from the I-Can’t-Catch-My-Breath feeling. My breathing would get wheezy, and the tightness I felt was more localized in my throat and the center of my chest. It was deeper inside somehow. It happened once when I was blow drying my dog's hair (don’t laugh, it was her favorite post bath ritual!) and another time while in a roomful of burning, scented candles. Definitely triggered by allergens!

  2. Out of breath due to exertion
    This one was harder for me to deal with, as it feels very similar to my constant, anxiety-driven experience of not being able to take a deep breath. I had to learn (over time) that being out of breath temporarily is ok.

  3. Panic and anxiety induced shallow breathing
    I. Cannot. Breathe. The suffering I endured with not being able to take a deep breath trumped all other panic attack symptoms because it NEVER WENT AWAY. The tightness would be strongest in the middle of my back, wrap around to the front of my chest, then peak with the sensation of an elephant crushing my chest during a full blown attack. I felt like I was perpetually locked into a too-tight, super-wide rubber band that would unexpectedly shrink to half its size! With me in it! This is SO miserable, but I have discovered several ways to find relief and stop panic attacks.

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