3 Signs You're Not Just 'Freaking Out,' You're Having A Panic Attack

by Talia Koren
Simone Becchetti

Driving is not in my top 10 life skills. I'm not terrible, but of all the places I've freaked out, inside a car by myself is the most common.

I'll never forget a traumatic driving experience back in college when I was on my way to work.

It was in the middle of a bad snowstorm, which is common for Ithaca, New York. But since you can't drive one block without hitting a hill or slope of some kind, driving in the snow is extra dangerous.

Even though I was driving slowly with extra caution, I started freaking out about other cars possibly sliding into me.

What was normally a 10-minute drive lasted half an hour, and by the time I got to work, I was hyperventilating and felt faint.

At one point, I felt incredibly close to passing out while driving, but I was able to relax and concentrate once I distracted myself and started breathing deeply.

Feeling in danger, having shortness of breath and feeling faint are all symptoms of a panic attack.

Of course, at the time, I just thought I was freaking out. But looking back, it was definitely a severe panic attack.

Panic attacks are different for everyone, but according to the National Institute of Mental Health, around 5 percent of the American population gets them.

However, in reality, this number is probably higher because people experience panic attacks without really knowing what they are.

When you're having a panic attack, your mind can make you feel like your life is in danger. But you can't die from them, even if you're really scared and it feels like something is terribly wrong with your body.

Here are some of the symptoms of panic attacks, as well as what to do to calm yourself down:

1. An overwhelming sense of fear, danger or loss of control.

When you have a panic attack, you might feel like the world is coming to an end. Panic attacks usually cause your body and mind to respond in some way. It's not just physical.

For example, you may experience a surge of doom, an urgency to escape or a feeling you're in grave danger.

And this is why panic attacks are so scary and traumatic: You feel like you've lost control.

I distinctly remember feeling this way in the car on the way to work during the snowstorm. It really did feel like the longest drive to work ever because I genuinely thought another car was going to slide into me.

The best way to overcome what's going on mentally during a panic attack is to remind yourself these thoughts are just an effect of the attack. Nothing bad is going to happen. Take a moment to breathe.

It's like telling yourself you just had a bad dream.

2. Feeling woozy, dizzy or short of breath.

Aside from mental symptoms, some of the physical ones include hot and cold flashes, feeling like you might pass out and pain or pressure in your chest.

Your breathing could speed up, and you might feel lightheaded and dizzy.

In my experience, I absolutely felt like I was going to faint, and I've never fainted before. To distract myself, I remember pulling over and calling my best friend and talking to her to calm myself down.

It was super helpful, as it distracted my body from the panic I was feeling.

In general, distracting yourself is a solid way to shorten or even end an panic attack. Anything that will take the focus off your symptoms could work.

3. Heart palpitations, trembling, sweating or numbness.

Other common symptoms include pins and needles or tingling sensations in the skin. Your heart rate could also spike, causing heart palpitations. You may also start shaking or sweating.

A heart palpitation is when you have an abnormal heartbeat and you're super aware of it. Normally, you're not aware of your heartbeat at all; your heart just does its thing. But when you're having a panic attack, that's not the case.

If you experience ongoing heart palpitations, you should definitely see a doctor.

To stop heart palpitations in the moment, coughing is effective. It usually causes the chest to "squeeze" the heart back into its normal rhythm.

Another way to stop palpitations is to take deep breaths or splash some cold water on your face.

Taking long, slow, deep breaths can alleviate most of these panic attack symptoms. In the moment, it's good to force yourself to focus on breathing and away from whatever threw you into panic mode.

Citations: Basic Facts About Panic Attacks (Anxiety Network)