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Unexpected signs you’re having a panic attack and you don’t even know it

Panic attacks are one of those things you’ve probably heard of, but may not know much about unless you've unfortunately experienced one yourself.

Either way, experts say they’re more common that many people think. According to the Anxiety UK, 5.9% of adults experience generalised anxiety disorder, a psychiatric condition in which people suffer panic attacks – the abrupt onset of intense fear or discomfort – and are preoccupied with the fear of experiencing another one.

Why does this happen to some people but not others? It may be linked with genetics, says Beth Salcedo, the medical director for The Ross Center for Anxiety & Related Disorders. “Someone with a first-degree relative with a history of anxiety is much more likely to experience panic symptoms than others,” she says.

And if you personally suffer from anxiety, you’re at an even greater risk of dealing with panic attacks, says licensed clinical psychologist Alicia H. Clark.

Of course, stress doesn’t help either—people with a high-stress lifestyle are more at risk for panic attacks, says clinical psychologist Dr. John Mayer, as are those who were brought up in a household that was full of worry and insecurities.

How can you know if you’ve had or are having a panic attack?

While we’ve all had moments when we feel incredibly stressed out, Clark says the biggest difference is that people who suffer from panic attacks typically have a sense that they’re dying. “Panic is often mistaken for a heart attack,” she says.

In addition to feeling like you might die, experts say panic attacks are also defined as meeting four or more of the following criteria:

  • You have a rapid heart rate.
  • You have tightness in your chest.
  • You have shortness of breath.
  • You start sweating.
  • You feel like you might faint.
  • You feel as if you might be going crazy.
  • You feel shaky or actually start shaking.
  • You feel nauseated.
  • You feel like you’re choking.
  • You feel like you’ve lost touch with reality.
  • You feel numb or tingly.

The first time people have a panic attack, they often don’t know what’s happening and go to A&E, says anxiety disorders expert Dr. Karen Cassiday. But once they have one and know what happened, they tend to worry about it happening again, she says – and that can actually make someone more likely to have another panic attack.

If you feel like you’re having a panic attack, try to stay calm and not fight it (easier said than done, but it may help). “When you fight with your increasing panic, the anxiety sometimes tends to worsen,” Clark says. She recommends getting yourself to a safe place where you can be as relaxed as possible, reminding yourself that you aren’t dying, and trying to calm your breathing.

Luckily, it’s possible to get help for panic attacks. While Mayer says it’s important to try to reduce life stressors, you can also seek input from a mental health professional. That person will typically help you learn to identify and cope with the symptoms of a panic attack through cognitive behavioural therapy, Cassiday says.

Even if your path to relief is different, talking to an expert can help you determine how to reduce the chances of having a panic attack, and if necessary, how to deal when one arises.

This originally appeared on Glamour UK.

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