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Am I Having a Panic Attack? Symptom Checklist and Action Plan

Note: This article is for informational purposes only. Consult with a doctor about any health concerns.

First, take a deep breath. If you're having a panic attack, it will pass, and you will be okay.

As you'll learn below, one of the best things you can do about a panic attack is acknowledge it and accept it.

It can also help to learn what's going on with your body right now, physiologically. Panic attacks are scary at the moment, but understanding what actually makes a panic attack happen can give you a sense of control and help further ground you.

First, a symptom checklist and a quick blurb about the biology behind them

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Panic Attack Symptom Checklist

Action Plan For Panic Attacks

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Panic Attack Symptom Checklist

To determine whether you are having a panic attack and to help you out of it, read through the checklist below.

Definition Template (12)-1

Check #1: Am I hyperventilating?

Hyperventilation essentially means excessive breathing, often accompanied by gasping or sobbing.

Scientifically, hyperventilation is a fascinating process. Like many of the uncomfortable symptoms associated with panic attacks, hyperventilation is an example of the body trying to protect itself but going way too far.

When you're having a panic attack, your body is in a heightened state of threat awareness. Known commonly as the fight-or-flight response, a panic attack sends your body into protection mode.

To ensure your muscles are getting the oxygen needed to fight off or run away from any given threat, your brain tells your lungs to work overtime, forcing air in and out in an effort to collect as much oxygen as possible.

The problem arises when there are no brakes. Because it senses danger, the part of your brain responsible for calming you down - the parasympathetic nervous system - is temporarily disabled.

In the absence of any inhibitor, your brain keeps pumping oxygen into your body. After a while, a chain of events occurs:

1.) Blood oxygen levels rise

2.) Conversely, blood carbon dioxide levels drop to suboptimal levels

3.) Because of the lack of CO2, your blood's pH is out of balance, resulting in a condition called respiratory alkalosis

4.) Respiratory alkalosis is not fatal at the levels possible during a panic attack, but it can cause new symptoms like dizziness, nausea, and muscle twitches

5.) The new symptoms can add to anxiety, worsening the panic attack.

Take a moment to focus on your breathing. Know that if you are experiencing nausea or muscle twitching during a panic attack, it's likely not going to hurt you (though you should follow up with a doctor out of caution, just to be sure).

Check #2: Do I feel tightness, tension, or tingling?

Another process associated with the fight-or-flight response, muscle tightening, is the result of stress hormones flooding your body during anxiety and panic attacks.

Muscle tension is fairly harmless, but may result in soreness, particularly the day after a panic attack. This is totally normal, since, during a panic attack, your brain basically gives you an unsolicited full-body workout.

Warm baths and massaging your muscles can help reduce muscle tension during the attack, as well as soreness afterwards.

Check #3: Is my anxiety worsening?

Because panic attacks are such complex and distressing events, both physiologically and psychologically, it's not uncommon for anxiety to worsen during an attack.

It's important to know this effect because it can help you start to regulate your anxiety during a panic attack.

One thing that can really help here is to say it out loud: "I am having a panic attack, and, as a result, my body feels different and my anxiety is worsening."

Check #4: Am I disoriented?

Feeling confused? That's also normal during a panic attack.

Given that your stress hormones are going full-steam ahead, your blood is changing its pH, and your anxiety seems to be in a downward spiral, it should come as no surprise that confusion and disorientation can happen as well.

As we will see later on, grounding is one of the best things you can do for panic attack disorientation.

Check #5: Is my heart racing?

Because your body is trying to keep your muscles tense and oxygenated, your heart is likely working overtime as well.

This can lead to the pounding heart that many with anxiety know all too well.

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Action Plan for Panic Attacks

Now that we have explored and explained the symptoms of a panic attack, it's time to create an action plan to help calm down, cool off, and return to a stable state.

Step #1: Acknowledgment

If you have read the article this far, this step has already been completed. Accept that you are having a panic attack and try to realize that, while panic attacks feel like you're spiraling into the unknown, they are actually just a series of well-studied and easily explicable physiological processes.

Step #2: Breathing Exercises

Try to breathe in for 5 seconds, counting in your head. Then, breathe out for 5 seconds. If you are hyperventilating, it might be hard to control your breathing to this extent. That's okay! Just keep trying to slow your breathing.

Step #3: Grounding: The 3-3-3 Rule

"Grounding" refers to the process of bringing yourself back to the present. This is particularly beneficial for those with flashbacks or traumatic memories.

One of the most effective grounding techniques (of which there are dozens) is called The 3-3-3 Rule. Take a moment to identify, from where you are currently sitting, standing, or lying down, three things you can see and three things you can hear. Then, focusing on intention, move three parts of your body.

This process tricks your brain into focusing less on memories and more on your current environment.

Step #4: Reach Out To Friends

Talking to someone during a panic attack can really help. Call or text a trusted friend and let them know you are having a panic attack and either want to talk about what's bothering you or talk about anything but what's bothering you.

Panic attacks feel very isolating, so having someone there to talk to - even if it's about the weather or various types of birds - can be very beneficial.

Step #5: Ongoing Healing

Finally, once your panic attack has passed, reach out to a mental health professional. Panic attacks are often related to past trauma or mental health conditions like generalized anxiety disorder, and talk therapy and medication may be able to help.

Therapy for Anxiety in Austin: Williamsburg Therapy Group

If you are prone to having panic attacks, our team of doctoral-level anxiety therapists in Austin is here for you.

Give us a call, and our patient coordinator will ask you a few questions to ensure you are matched with the best therapist for you.

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