How can I tell if something is a panic attack?

It’s important to note that panic attacks are a specific psychological and physiological phenomenon. Just being scared, upset, or startled does not mean you had a panic attack.

If you’re not sure whether you had a panic attack or just a period of strongly unpleasant emotion, talk to a mental health professional.

It may be a panic attack if:

  • You felt entirely overwhelmed or out of control
  • The experience, or how you felt afterward, has disrupted your life in a significant way
  • It had a number of physical symptoms
  • Common methods of calming yourself didn’t work
  • It seemed disproportionate to or went on far longer than the situation that triggered it
  • It came out of nowhere and didn’t seem to have a situational trigger

It’s okay not to know, or to have mixed feelings about naming your experience as a panic attack. There is no medical test to determine what is and isn’t a panic attack. Ultimately, diagnostic labels exist to help you manage symptoms that disrupt your daily life by naming and understanding them.

What isn’t a panic attack

Not everything is a panic attack. Far too many people jump to that phrase to just describe freaking out, being startled, or a fleeting moment of panic.

This is a problem because:

  • Labeling every experience of anxiety or fear a ‘panic attack’ can make you feel overwhelmed, or it can make you feel like every negative emotion is a potential crisis. It’s okay and perfectly normal to feel stressed or upset, especially in stressful or upsetting situations.
  • Misusing the phrase “panic attack” to describe minor, manageable things that everyone experiences makes it harder for the general population to understand and empathize with the reality of a panic attack, which makes it harder for those who have panic attacks to get treatment or accommodations.
  • Blurring the line between what is and isn’t a panic attack can make your panic attacks harder to address. If you use your emergency medication every time you feel uncomfortable, or if you retreat from any situation that begins to cause anxiety, you will make things worse over time.

This article is part of the “So You Had A Panic Attack” resource guide. Go back to the SYHAPA index page

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