anxiety and panic attack

How Anxiety & Panic Attacks Can Feel in the Body

The Nystrom & Associates provider consulted for this article is Dr. Karin Ryan, PsyD, LP, Clinic Director, Outpatient Therapist.  Anxiety and panic attacks can feel different for everyone and experiencing them doesn't just affect your brain, it affects your body. If you've experienced anxiety or a panic attack, you know how scary they can be in the moment. To better understand anxiety and panic, we need to take a look at how they can present in the body. 

The Alarm Bells - Physical & Mental  

When we experience a threat, whether it be physical, emotional, or interpersonal, our brain sets off an alert to the body and the body reacts with physical and emotional symptoms. While this is extremely helpful if the threat is physical, it isn't as helpful for our day-to-day stressors. For example, this alert is needed for when we want to jump out of the way of a car, or if we are being chased by an animal. On the other hand, it is less helpful if we're anxious about how our friend is going to respond to feedback or we're waiting to hear back about a job offer. Most people are aware that anxiety affects your brain, however, as Dr. Karin Ryan states, "We tend to minimize or not believe how strongly the mind/anxiety can impact the body." Related: 4 Anxiety-Related Negative Thought Patterns

Nystrom & Associates on Twin Cities Live 

The Beck Anxiety Inventory

The Beck Anxiety Inventory (a self-report assessment for measuring anxiety levels) is a great way to assess how your body is impacted and highlights all the ways we can physically feel our anxiety. Some symptoms reviewed by Dr. Karin Ryan include:
  • Numbness or tingling, especially in our hand or arms, (or cold hands) is part of the adaptive response - where my blood leaves extremities if I have an injury, I am least likely to bleed out. 
  • Feeling hot, which is due to the flush of hormones put out after my brain sends the signal. 
  • Feeling dizzy or lightheaded, from a change in breathing or blood pressure drop with fight or flight. 
  • Head pounding, due to blood rushing to the brain. When the amygdala alerts the brain to danger, the prefrontal cortex should kick in and help you come up with a rational, logical response. 
  • Tightened muscles, especially in your neck, scalp and shoulders can lead to tension headaches. 
  • Difficulty breathing, due to shallow breaths and holding tension in.  
  • Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea due to the body not wanting to waste energy on digestion to save energy for fight or flight.
These symptoms can last hours, days, weeks and are hard on our bodies.  Related: Postpartum Depression: Signs & Symptoms 

What Are Panic Attacks?  

We also can experience panic attacks which are sudden episodes of intense fear that trigger severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause. Panic attacks can be very frightening. When panic attacks occur, you might think you're losing control, having a heart attack, or even dying.  While symptoms are similar to the bodily responses to anxiety, they are much more intense and come on very quickly. Panic attacks are different from periods of high anxiety, which tend to have more worrying thoughts or build-up. Panic attacks present quickly, are very intense, and are primarily physical. Symptoms last 5 to 30 minutes, peak in 10 minutes, and can include:  
  • Chest pain
  • Choking or smothering sensation
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Fear of losing control or being detached 
  • Feeling like you’re going to die
  • An intense feeling of terror
  • Trembling or shaking 
Related: Panic Attacks: 4 Quick Tips to Help Cope 

How to Support a Loved One

If someone you love is having a panic attack, there are a few things you can do to help. If there is any concern that it is a heart attack, which can be a common concern when someone has their first panic attack, call 911.   Dr. Karin Ryan offers several tips on how to support a loved one that's having a panic attack:
  • Stay calm and stay with the person 
  • Gently let them know that you think they might be having a panic attack and that you are there for them 
  • Reassure them that it will not last forever 
  • Offer them to sit down or lie down and give them space 
  • Gently remind them to breathe and that they are breathing 
  • Express that what they are feeling is scary, but it is not dangerous 
  • Keep them grounded by focusing on a repetitive task counting, wiggling toes, raising arms 
  • Encourage professional help  

A Word From Nystrom & Associates  

Are you suffering from anxiety and panic attacks? We can help. Nystrom & Associates specializes in anxiety and panic attacks. Call 1-844-NYSTROM or request an appointment online at any of our convenient locations.  

Share this post

More From Our Blog