I’m Dying: What a Panic Attack Feels Like

– Posted in: Panic Attacks

The term “panic attack” is part of our common language. We hear it all the time.

“When I saw the electricity bill I just had a panic attack!” Or, “I had a panic attack when I woke up and saw I was two hours late for work!” Or, “When I realized I’d just eaten a raw oyster I about had a panic attack!” All these statements are inaccurate uses of the term “panic attack,” and are what are called clinomorphisms, or exaggerated use of a medical term.

Panic attacks are no laughing matter, and people who have the real ones cringe when they hear the term bandied about in everyday speech like it was nothing. They know the feeling that you are about to die, the intense fear, and the sudden onset are far more than what most people think of as a “panic attack.”

So how does it really feel to have a panic attack? Few people, aside from panic attack sufferers themselves, really know. It’s the purpose of this post to give you an insider’s view of what it actually feels like to have a panic attack. 

Check out the article What Panic Attacks Have Taught Me for more help on overcoming Panic Attacks. And can panic attacks physically harm you? Panic Attacks Can’t Hurt You–Really! says no!

What exactly is a panic or anxiety attack?

Sudden surge of overwhelming fear

A panic attack is a sudden surge of overwhelming fear that comes without warning and without any obvious reason. It is far more intense than the feeling of being “stressed out” that most people experience. A panic attack is marked by:

  • Occurring suddenly, without any warning and without any way to stop it.
  • The level of fear is way out of proportion to the actual situation, and is often completely unrelated.
  • It passes in a few minutes, however, repeated attacks can continue to recur for hours.

For detailed information on panic attacks, please see the “Panic Attacks” reference article, For help making it through a panic attack, see the post, “Are You Having a Panic Attack? What Can You Do?” 

What do psychiatrists say are the symptoms of a panic attack?

The “official” criteria for panic attacks

First, let’s get the “official” criteria for determining whether what you are feeling is a panic attack or not. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) of the American Psychiatric Association is the standard for diagnosis of mental disorders all over the world. 

It requires that at least four of the following symptoms develop abruptly and reach a peak within 10 minutes for a diagnosis of panic attack:

1. Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate

2. Sweating

3. Trembling or shaking

4. Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering

5. Feeling of choking

6. Chest pain or discomfort

7. Nausea or abdominal distress

8. Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint

9. Derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself)

10. Fear of losing control or going crazy

11. Fear of dying

12. Paresthesias (numbness or tingling sensations)

13. Chills or hot flushes

My panic attacks

Muscle constrictions, pounding heart, weakness and tingling, and fear of losing control

I hesitate to insert a personal side to this post, but since I have first-hand knowledge of how it feels to have a  panic attack, I believe it is appropriate to describe mine. Each of my panic attacks is a little different, but all follow the same general outline: muscle constrictions, pounding heart, weakness and tingling, and fear of losing control and fainting.

My panic attacks start with muscle constrictions and tingling around the eyes, then the feeling spreads to my mouth and lower face. I develop a headache and feel a choking muscle constriction in my neck and tightening of my chest. There is a funny feeling in my chest, like shooting electricity. My heart starts pounding, my breathing is constricted and I feel very weak, especially in my arms and hands. A tingly feeling spreads over my whole body. I have a sense of unreality, of watching myself from a distance, and a growing fear of being unable to control myself. As things escalate, I desperately look for someplace — any place — to escape to. At its peak, I feel like I am going to faint and if things continue, I will surely die.

What do others say are their symptoms during a panic attack?

An informal compiled list of symptoms

Panic attacks are by their nature subjective experiences, and like all subjective experiences, are open to the interpretation and description of the sufferer. Following is an informal compiled list of symptoms from Wikipedia. They are grouped under “physical,” “mental,” “emotional,” and “perceptual” headings:


  • A sensation of adrenaline going through your entire body
  • Sweating
  • Shortness of breath (dyspnea)
  • Stomach Problems (spastic colon)
  • Racing or pounding heartbeat or palpitations
  • Chest pain
  • Dizziness or vertigo
  • Headache
  • Lightheadedness
  • Nausea or stomach pains
  • Hyperventilation
  • Choking or smothering sensations
  • Hot flashes
  • Cold flashes
  • Tingling or numbness in the hands, face, feet or mouth (paresthesia)
  • Feelings of “crawly,” “itchy,” or “cringy” skin sensations.
  • Burning sensations
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Feeling of claustrophobia
  • Feeling like the body is shutting down and/or dying
  • Tremors in the legs and thighs
  • Tingling spine
  • Feeling like one is experiencing a heart attack
  • Exhaustion
  • Muscle spasms
  • Feeling of physical weakness or limpness of the body
  • Grinding teeth or tensing other muscles repeatedly or for prolonged periods of time
  • Temporary blindness
  • Sizzling or ringing in ears


  • Intense and/or frightening realizations of reality
  • Loss of the ability to react logically to stimuli
  • Loss of cognitive ability in general
  • Racing thoughts (often based on fear)
  • Irrational thoughts
  • Loud internal dialogue
  • Feeling like nothing is real
  • Feeling of impending doom
  • Feeling of “going crazy”
  • Feeling out of control
  • Feeling like no one understands what is happening
  • Vision is somewhat impaired (eyes may feel like they are shaking.)
  • Feeling like you are going to die any second
  • Avoidance behavior
  • Agoraphobia


  • Terror, or a sense that something unimaginably horrible is about to occur and one is powerless to prevent it
  • Fear that the panic is a symptom of a serious illness
  • Fear that the panic will not subside
  • Fear of losing control
  • Fear of death
  • Fear of living
  • Fear of going crazy
  • Flashbacks to earlier panic trigger
  • Intense “scared” feeling
  • Fear of failure


  • Tunnel vision
  • Heightened senses
  • The apparent slowing down or speeding up of time
  • Dream-like sensation or perceptual distortion (derealization)
  • Dissociation, or the perception that one is not connected to the body or is disconnected from space and time (depersonalization)
  • Feeling of loss of free will, as if acting entirely automatically without control

If you think that you are having panic attacks…

Panic attacks are not dangerous in themselves

If you are experiencing four or more of the symptoms listed by the DSM-IV for panic attacks within 10 minutes, you need to contact your doctor as soon as possible. Panic attacks are not dangerous in and of themselves, though you often feel like you’re dying. But the avoidance of the situations that trigger panic attacks can very rapidly lead to a severe constriction of your life, to Panic Disorder, and to Agoraphobia. The danger is not in the panic attacks, but in what they can lead to.

Panic attacks are one of the most treatable of the Anxiety Disorders, and many times a mental health professional can help you manage them without the use of drugs. The course of treatments is often not very long, and you will have the ability to control your condition for the rest of your life. 

What do you think?

  • Do you have panic attack symptoms that are not listed here?
  • Can you describe your own panic attacks?
  • What do you think of people who misuse the term “panic attack?”

What can you do now?

Your comments are always welcome, and are important to this blog’s community! Leave a comment now.

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©2008 Anxiety, Panic & Health. All rights reserved.

Resources used in this post:
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association. 1994.
Wikipedia. (2008). Panic attack. Retrieved June 28, 2008 from Wikipedia Web site: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panic_attack

413 comments… add one
Bdub October 27, 2017, 7:02 am

I’ve always had anxiety of being stuck somewhere since I was young before I ever had a panic attack. In a class room, during a speech, at church. A situation I couldn’t leave without seeming rude or crazy. But my first actual panic attack wasn’t until I was 19.

I was at work and a little hungover, and I didn’t know what it was at the time but my sinuses started acting up. My face felt like it was crawling. This caused my heart to pound a little because I wasn’t familiar with it. My palms started to sweat, and I started feeling a flushing feeling. This obviously made my heart beat even faster and before I knew it when people were talking to me it was like I was hearing them and listening to them, but not really comprehending wtf they were saying. This sent a flush of adrenaline through me like you get when you slam on your breaks when somebody suddenly stops in front of you. After that my heart was off the charts, I felt like I was dying, no matter if I was in an ambulance or at a doctors office could anyone save me from the impending doom. I felt like I was going crazy and no one was going to understand me. I ran to the bathroom throwing water on my face. After that I went into the break room and started doing pushups to match my movements with my heart rate (cause I thought some how that would help). Eventually it went away, and that was the first panic attack that led to many more … until I figured out to control them.

Finding out what it was helped the most. Then when the onset came on I would repeatedly say “it’s a panic attack, it’s a panic attack”. I started changing my onset thinking. Instead of freaking out I’d tell myself “the worst that will happen is you’ll pass out. Which is better than even having a panic attack. Dying is even better than a panic attack”. I’d take deep breaths, but mostly just being mentally aware helped. To this day after fighting off so many onsets I no longer get them. Still occasionally onsets, but being mentally prepared is the best thing that can help you in my opinion. Just wanted to share my story.

Jasmine Kathy November 15, 2017, 2:23 am

Sometimes dying helps people put the end point at their panic. For me, dying is better than suffering panic day by day

Jess December 15, 2017, 6:08 am

Hi Jasmine, I too suffer from anxiety and panic disorder and life can be tough. I have great days and awful days but with Faith, Yoga (recently), my loved ones support and my absolute determination to NOT let the anxiety win, I’m hoping my days will become happier ones. You were born to live a wonderful life Jasmine, live it, bit by bit, day by day. I believe in you. I hope you have people you can talk to personally and/or professionally. God bless you. You’ve got this. Just believe in yourself. I know how hard it it is. All the very best : )

Shane Banks January 15, 2018, 5:25 am

Had one today. Came out of the blue. My legs and feet felt tingly and weak. Butterflies in my chest then this feeling of impending doom. My heart was pounding then missing beats, my hands felt weird, I wanted to escape the feeling but there was no where I could go. I thought I had this crap beat. But this felt different :(

Russ January 25, 2018, 11:52 am

I’m so sorry for everyone who is dealing with panic attacks. I know how overwhelming the feeling can be. I think bdub is on track by knowing that it’s just a panic attack and naming it. No one is going to die from a panic attack. Stay strong and be determined to beat it! And please if anyone is thinking about suicide, contact a mental health professional.

Laura Funderburk February 28, 2018, 1:01 pm

i have had panic attacks one right after the other since i have had a sinus infection and haven’t been able to eat much.Someday’s are worse than others and it scares me

Kinsey March 11, 2018, 1:51 am

Here I am, up in the middle of the night because of a panic attack… having body pain and of course my mind goes to the worst case scenario and I now I’m in a power struggle of do I go to the hospital or not. I think “don’t go, you’re tired, you just need to sleep. They won’t find anything wrong with you and they’ll only ask you about your emotional state as usual” but then I fight with myself and think “but what it something is really wrong this time?”. See.. I’ve had an array of health issues.. they never seem to stop and I constantly wonder, do you the issues manifest through anxiety and emotion. I know I have some issues, I’ve seen doctors and have proof of ailments.. but also some of it.. I don’t know. I hate reacting to things the way I do… I wish I was more rational. I wish I didn’t always feel like something is horribly wrong, only falling into a downward spiral of “is this it!? What about my kids, my family, they need me, hell, I need them”. Panic and anxiety definitely makes everythjng more difficult. Positive mind. Positive life. So here I sit, telling myself to get it together. This too shall pass.

Tessa G March 15, 2018, 4:01 pm

I have always suffered with severe anxiety, but had only had one previous panic attack several years back….UNTIL today. I knew exactly what was happening this time (unlike last time when I actually went to the ER because I was 100% certain I was having a heart attack! lol). The article below is fitting: I told my loved ones I WAS dying today! I experienced a random assortment of the symptoms.

toss April 30, 2018, 9:40 pm

My first panic attack was kinda ironic. I have really bad anxiety, and one day in my math class, i was just thinking, “I wonder what a panic attack really feels like. What if I get one? Especially during class? That would be bad… really bad…” and then aLL OF A SUDDEN I WAS PANICKING THAT I MIGHT GET A PANIC ATTACK and i just felt like my heart was trying to jump out of me and run away and i wanted to curl up in a ball and die. yeah. now whenever im anywhere that makes me kinda iffy like i cant sit still and i just feel bad and anxious, ill just think of kittens and my boyfriend and rainbows and drawing, cause that calms me down lol

William Melton December 23, 2018, 1:44 am

Panic fear is always near. Keep benzos near every where I go. Any and all trips I take are filled with what if rumination of getting panic attacks. Take ssri’s to help but the thought of panic attacks stops the fun in life. Fear of dying and how every little symptom of discomfort is life threatening keeps me seeing a therapist. CBT, Function in the storm is the way and panic is a storm.

JoAnn January 9, 2019, 10:10 pm

I have panic or anxiety attacks that literally wake me from a sound sleep. I’m aware I am about to have one because I feel suffocated , claustrophobic and feel as if I don’t leave the confinement of my house , car environment I will die. It is absolutely the most horrible feeling I have ever felt.

john March 14, 2019, 4:35 am

I’m so sorry for everyone who is dealing with panic attacks. I know how overwhelming the feeling can be. I think bdub is on track by knowing that it’s just a panic attack and naming it. No one is going to die from a panic attack. Stay strong and be determined to beat it! And please if anyone is thinking about suicide, contact a mental health professional.

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