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Could it be a panic attack?

Jen Klein is a New England-based technical writer and mother of three. When she isn't asking her kids to stop bickering, "caramelizing" the dinner or actively ignoring the dust bunnies under the couch, she enjoys knitting, gardening, pho...

Don't panic!

Everyone has feelings of anxiety and fear once in a while. When stress runs high, you can feel overwhelmed and very much out of your comfort zone. Sometimes, though, the anxiety crosses the line into a full-fledged panic attack, which is nothing to take lightly.

Woman having panic attack

If you've ever experienced a very sudden and overwhelming sense of fear or impending doom coupled with physical symptoms, you may have had a panic attack. Panic attacks in themselves can be extremely frightening, especially if you don't know what is happening. You may even think you are having a heart attack.

How do you know if it is a panic attack?

A panic attack has very real physical symptoms that include a rise in blood pressure, difficulty breathing, chest pain, tunnel vision, a racing heart rate, hot flashes or chills, nausea, headache and dizziness -- all in addition to that overwhelming feeling of fear or doom. Symptoms can build over 10 minutes or so, then take much longer to subside -- up to several hours (or even longer).

A panic attack during a particularly stressful time in your life is a warning sign that you need to step back and address the source of the stress. But if you start to have panic attacks more frequently, you may have developed a panic disorder. You may need help managing the attacks and addressing situations related to them.

Seek help

Your doctor can help you determine whether an episode of extreme physical and emotional anxiety is actually a panic attack. If, through a diagnostic process, your doctor determines that you have a panic disorder, she has a number of treatments with which to help you. If your doctor determines that you had a panic attack, but it's an anomaly, you still can benefit from some elements of a treatment plan -- specifically, addressing the underlying triggers.

Changes in lifestyle can help manage panic disorders and head off individual attacks. Making sure you get enough exercise and sleep, are eating properly, and have some stress-management rituals will be a part of many treatment plans. Working with a licensed psychotherapist to deal with underlying issues and stressful situations may be a part of your plan as well. In some instances, medication may help manage the disorder.

Everyone's life is crazy and stressful from time to time; anxiety is a part of life. When anxiety starts to take control and interferes with your enjoyment of life, however, take control back from anxiety. You may not be able to prevent panic attacks entirely, but you can learn to manage them.

Tell us: How do you manage stress when life feels overwhelming? Comment below!

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