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.


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 happeningPurpose in SNS

What it feels like

Increased muscle tensionReady to fight or runI am being squeezed
Increased respiratory rateImprove oxygen intakeI can’t breathe, I am choking
Increased heart ratePump blood faster to vital organsI am having a heart attack
Reduced blood flow to hands, feetDirect all blood to vital organsI can’t feel my limbs
Increased sweat productionImprove grip for weaponsI am suffocating
Increased adrenalinePreparation for burst of energy to fight or runI am not in control of my body
Increased oxygen to brainImprove decision making and vital functioningI am going to faint (dizziness, disoriented)
Dilated pupils and narrowed visionAllow more light to retina, increase intensity of focusI can’t see normally (tunnel vision)
Increased sensitivity to soundsAllow heightened awareness of surroundingsEverything is so loud and scary



The entire panic attack will last about 30 minutes total, with the peak of it being at minute 10.   After the 30 minutes, your body will then return to the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) which allows you to heal, rest, and use all functions of your body. However, you will most likely feel exhausted.  The amount of energy used for a panic attack is equivalent to running a 5k up to an entire marathon, without the added benefit of those uplifting endorphins. Allow yourself to relax for the rest of the day, if possible.


Although a panic attack begins seemingly abruptly, our body is actually sending us very subtle hints of heightened alert and potential danger.  Improving your awareness of these signs can allow you an easier experience with your panic attack. Some signs may include cooler skin, dry mouth, slight increased heart rate, difficulty concentrating on the present, increased ability to hear, feeling of excess energy in your body, or shallower breathing. To better learn techniques to ease and prevent panic attacks, professional help is always a great start.  Also, talk with your loved ones about what you feel would be helpful in these moments and make a plan.


Joy Walsh is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker at The Lighthouse Emotional Wellness Center.  The Lighthouse, located in Schaumburg, IL, was the first emotional wellness center to be established in the Midwest over 15 years ago, serving as a guiding light towards healthy relationships. Our counseling services are provided for couples, families and individuals, to assist them in creating happy, healthy and empowered lives. For more information, check us out at www.LighthouseEmotionalWellness.com, or call us at 847-253-9769.