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How do I know if I'm really having a panic attack or if I'm just freaking out?

245 Answers
Last Updated: 11/13/2017 at 12:56pm
How do I know if I'm really having a panic attack or if I'm just freaking out?
★ This question about Panic Attacks was starred by a moderator on 5/12/2016.
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Sarah Archer, LMFT

Marriage & Family Therapist

As a Licensed MFT I work with clients to more effectively address, process and learn skills to manage the problems that prevent them from living the life they want.

Top Rated Answers
December 10th, 2014 1:18am
It'll be hard to breath and well, your panicking. Sometimes time seems to fly by, too. You'll think it was a few minutes but it could be and hour. You will probably end up uncontrollably crying.
December 10th, 2014 1:37am
Usually panic attacks last about 15-30 minutes however they can come back throughout the day and sometimes even last a hour. Limit your caffeine if you're prone to anxiety
June 19th, 2015 4:03am
If you feel something pushing down on your chest and/or feel that it's hard to breathe, then it is probably a panic attack.
June 19th, 2015 5:03am
If you've experienced a panic attack before, you'll know pretty quickly. A panic attack is essentially freaking out, just a lot more intense!
June 19th, 2015 9:37am
Panick attacks often come with shortness of breath or an overwhelming sense of fear or need to run. Though in either case you may find deep breathing a chat with a friend or listener calms your nerves!
June 19th, 2015 4:21pm
Someone experiencing a panic attack feels as though they have no control over their body; cannot catch your breath, sweaty palms, heart palpitations or racing heart, shaky, chest pain or discomfort, and feeling detached from your surroundings. Because of the feeling there is no control, panic arises along with each symptom.
June 19th, 2015 5:38pm
Well they are really similar but the symptoms such as shortness of breath, rapid heart beats, sweating, twitching etc. Are signs of a panic attack which should help differentiate
June 19th, 2015 7:34pm
Panic attacks are sudden and come with strong physical response (discomfort, like heart racing, palpitations, change in respiration, sweaty palms etc) fuelled with negative catastrophic cognitions (catastrophic beliefs like I am going to die!) followed by a behaviour (avoidance "I must get out now!). If you ask a person who has experienced a panic attack what that person was thinking before and during the attack, he/she will most likely state a "loss of control" being "afraid to lose her mind" and be institutionalised or that he would die as a result of the high level of discomfort. People who experience panic attacks are very focused on the internal physical responses and fuelled by catastrophic cognitions about what is going to happen to them if they keep on feeling the discomfort (death) and that is why they will react so dramatically (survival). The fear of having a panic attack and avoiding anything that associates with a strong feeling of discomfort is actually what maintains the problem in the first place.
June 20th, 2015 2:31am
Panic attacks are when you are emotionally unstable and cannot control your breathing, whereas "freaking out" is just a nervous feeling taking over your body that can be relieved quickly.
June 20th, 2015 5:15am
When having a panic attack one can experience physical symptoms from a racing heart and sweating to chest pains and hyperventilating. In my experience, it can be very scary and can take several minutes to go away.
June 20th, 2015 12:22pm
The idea of "Freaking out" seems to be more self destructive (banging head against a wall, etc) whereas a panic attack makes you feel "cramped," or trapped with no way out, but you don't beat yourself up. Think of it as being frozen in place and unable to catch up with your heart or your lungs. Panic attacks have a series of very specific symptoms leading from a build up of anxiety, whereas freaking out is often related to pent up anger.
June 20th, 2015 6:38pm
There's no concrete way to know for sure because both have similar symptoms. Panic attacks, though, generally have more dramatic symptoms and as they are spurred on by a rush of adrenaline, you'll usually have a wild, racing heartbeat, jagged breathing, shaking, no rational thoughts, fear, and often (but not always) a need to move (from the fight or flight instinct). Freaking out is generally more in your mind than anything - you might cry or have some symptoms of a panic attack but panic attacks are usually on a much different scale.
June 20th, 2015 11:27pm
A panic attack can consist of chest pains that feel like heart attacks. If you're just freaking out, you normally won't feel like that.
June 21st, 2015 2:35am
Panic attacks can cause you to have chest pains, dizzyness, difficulties breathing, and shaking. Freaking out may or may not consist of having a panic attack. If you feel like you're going to pass out, or worse, when you're feeling anxious I would see a psychologist and they can help you from there.
June 21st, 2015 8:12am
What I have found is that panic attacks usually come on without any real indication that you're about to have one. Freaking out is something that is gradual and continuously grows higher and more intense the more you dwell over the thoughts that are freaking you out. But that is only in my experience.
June 21st, 2015 5:45pm
I've had years of experience with panic attacks. My most severe and frequent attacks happened in my late teens and early twenties. When I had a panic attack I would usually have a sense of foreboding followed by a weak feeling and rapid heartbeat, shallow breathing, and sometimes I would get clammy. Often my senses would be hyper sensitive - my vision seemed super sharp, and I could hear and feel everything in a heightened way. I would often walk around with my hands on my pulse checking that my heart was beating, somehow thinking that it was helpful (when actually it was helping to perpetuate the attack). I made lots of trip to the ER when I first started having panic attacks, fearing that I was having a heart attack. Panic attacks could hit at anytime and I began to avoid going places where I though I could not get medical attention quickly. I didn't know what was happening to me until I started in therapy and began to understand how my panic attacks worked. Even though it feels like something is going terribly wrong, I'm able to take steps to reduce the intensity. The frequency of the attacks has dropped dramatically, but when I feel a panic attack coming on I generally am able to be mindful of it without getting carried away by the panic. Panic attacks can be exhausting. After an attack I would often shake all over even though I wasn't cold, and then my body would be so spent I would need to sleep. I think the main difference between a panic attack and just freaking out it that there is a major mind+body component that can include, for example - feelings of dread, rapid heart rate, shallow breathing, sweating, vision disturbance, muscle tension, light headedness, stomach ache, etc. These symptoms are generally not present when just freaking out.
June 21st, 2015 6:55pm
I think you know because it feels different your breath starts to go wierd you start to feel really hot and sweaty and it's like you feel sick
June 21st, 2015 10:14pm
Typically when you are having a panic attack you experience a sense of disorganization within your thoughts. While symptoms vary for different individuals, common ones are hyperventilation, shakiness, sweating, shivering, and confusion. Sometimes there is no specific source of distress regarding panic attacks but other times there can be. Its easy to confuse a panic attack and a freak-out but likely if you feel like it is a panic attack then it probably is.
June 24th, 2015 3:49am
You can look up the symptoms online :) I also found that anxiety attacks and panic attacks to be slightly different, so its important to identify which one it is before it happens again.
June 24th, 2015 4:54am
I know I'm having an attack when I can't catch my breath. If i'm just nervous, my hands will get sweaty and i might shake a bit. but when my breathing gets all messed up, that's when i know it's an attack. I feel like I can't catch my breath at all and I have to focus hard on taking deep breaths.
June 24th, 2015 10:44am
Panic attacks can present themselves with a variety of different symptoms, and not everybody experiences them the same way. The main symptoms of a panic/anxiety attack can include things like accelerated heart rate, shortness of breath or hyperventilation, nausea, dizziness, trembling and/or muscle tension (among many other symptoms). Sometimes it may be hard to tell whether you're having a panic attack or just 'freaking out', but if these feelings are concerning you, then definitely tell somebody you trust about it. Untreated stress can be quite detrimental to your mental health and overall wellbeing.
June 24th, 2015 2:26pm
Everybody freaks out sometimes, it's natural to feel like this. A panic attack is a much more serious and scary experience. You may shake, feel like you have no breath or are dying. They tend to come on very fast in overwhelming situations where you feel anxious.
June 24th, 2015 3:48pm
Revise the symptoms and when you feel unsure, see if you are having symptoms, if not you are just freaking out.
June 24th, 2015 11:40pm
Panic attacks are different from freaking out. When you have a panic attack you feel dizzy , your heart beats fast and I breath really deep or fast breaths , like you can't catch your breath. Your hands and feet go numb and sometimes cold, you get nauseous and sometimes throw up. And sometimes when your panic attack is hard you pass out
June 25th, 2015 1:32am
a panic attack is generally accompanied by sweating and elevated heart rate and shallow breathing.
June 25th, 2015 5:27am
Panic attacks come on suddenly and there is usually a trigger that sets it off. During panic you feel a softness of breath, weakness and you may shake. A panic attack lasts a short period of time and you usually feel tired afterwards. There may be a pattern to panic. Freaking out comes with stress and usually there is a different meaning about what you are freaking out about whereas panic comes from the same underlying fear or memory that has left yiu with fear
June 25th, 2015 1:04pm
A panic attack might cause intense immediate fear of death or fear of physical danger and other physical symptoms such as shortness of breath, numbness and tingling in the face, chest, or extremeties. Panic attacks don't last for very long but can reoccur many times in a stressful period due to anxiety. People with panic attacks often think their heart is beating irregularly or their breathing is not working properly, and that they are in danger, but this is all a result of the body's response to a flood of adrenaline. The fear it produces is the result of a vicious cycle of mental feedback that causes you to fear for your health and then possibly for your life. On the other hand, a "freakout" might be due to frustration or stress or anger but will not be accompanied by intense immediate fear of harm or intense physical symptoms. If you have panic attacks, do realize that this is not a permanent condition and that panic attacks cannot actually hurt you other than by making you faint/pass out. While a "freakout" may be an emotionally severe reaction to stress, a panic attack is a physically severe reaction to stress.
June 25th, 2015 7:14pm
Well, I would say they are one in the same. However a panic attack is a heavy "freak out". Symptoms can be both emotional and physical. SOME emotional symptoms would be: lack of concentration, feeling paranoid, or irritable es. SOME physical symptoms would be: upset stomach, feelings of; being light headed, dizzy, or vertigo. These are only some symptoms and not everyone get's all symptoms and some get all symptoms. You could also talk to your primary care provider and check out the Anxiety self help guide on 7cups. :)
June 25th, 2015 7:38pm
I know I am having a panic attack when I physically cant control my breathing and my chest weighs a million pounds.
June 25th, 2015 11:06pm
Panic attack or freaking out to me are just labels --- it is what is happening (the symptoms) that need the attention. So whatever I would take actions to try calm myself deep breaths etc.