What does a panic attack feel like? Symptoms and how to get out of one

Panic attacks can be terrifying − both for the person experiencing them and for people close by witnessing their occurrence. What's more, experiencing panic attacks may be more common than some people realize. While only about 3% of the population are diagnosed with panic disorder, which involves repeated panic attacks that typically occur without warning, millions more have panic attacks less frequently.

"Approximately one third of all people will experience 1-2 panic attacks at some point in their lives," says Juanita Guerra, PhD, a clinical psychologist practicing meditation in New Rochelle, New York.

Since panic attacks occur so frequently, understanding what a panic attack feels like and how to respond can be helpful.

What is a panic attack?

A panic attack is a sudden episode of "acute fear or worry, where the individual feels terrified, threatened or like they’re at risk of dying," explains Guerra. One of the things that makes it so troubling is that the onset is often unexpected and can be brought on or triggered by an unknown factor.

Though the experience doesn't last long, Guerra says "panic attacks can be very scary."

What does a panic attack feel like?

While each panic attack can vary by person or circumstance, generally, someone experiencing an episode will have a pounding or rapid heartbeat, chest pain and feel some sort of shakiness or trembling. Such symptoms often resemble cardiac arrest or something similar, which is why "people often misinterpret their symptoms and believe they are having a heart attack and therefore go to the hospital," Guerra explains. "Often, they are doubtful of their diagnosis or shocked to learn they had a panic attack and not a heart attack," she adds.

Some people having a panic attack experience other or additional symptoms. These might include disorientation, feeling suddenly hot or cold, sweating, or experiencing light-headedness or dizziness. "Hyperventilating or difficulty breathing is another common symptom of panic attacks that can increase the fear you’re experiencing," explains Amanda Darnley, PsyD, a practicing psychologist based in Philadelphia.

And though panic attacks are sometimes confused with anxiety attacks, the two are different, though sometimes rooted in different things. What's more, "a panic attack can have similar symptoms as anxiety," says Jimmy Noorlander, LCSW, a clinical social worker at Deseret Counseling in Utah. "The difference is, panic attacks come on suddenly while anxiety can be a constant worry."

What to do during a panic attack

When a person is having a panic attack, "the first thing they should try to do is control their breathing," advises Guerra. That means taking slow, deep breaths and concentrating on each extended inhale and exhale. Refocusing one's attention away from the episode can also be helpful. "Focus on something specific in the environment, a picture or object, and use it to ground yourself," Guerra suggests.

Some people also find that splashing water on their face can be effective at calming down; others repeat a mantra or appreciate the reassuring words of a loved one nearby reminding them that everything will be OK; and Noorlander says that tapping has also been shown to be effective during panic attacks. Tapping is a mind-body therapy technique where one takes a finger or two and taps the tip of the finger(s) gently around one's face, head, hands, arms or neck.

Darnley says that during a panic attack, it's also often helpful to remind oneself that the entire episode will pass quickly and without any lasting physical damage. "Symptoms typically peak within 10 minutes and dissipate soon after," she says.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: What does a panic attack feel like? Panic attack symptoms, more