If you get a panic attack, it usually lasts 20 to 30 minutes, hitting its peak at about 10 minutes in. So what's going on if it seems to you like your panic attack just won't end?
To figure out the possible reasons it feels this way, it helps to understand what's happening during a panic attack. When you have one, it triggers your "fight or flight" response, which is how your body reacts when your physical safety is threatened. You get a rush of adrenaline that amps you up so you can make a split-second decision to run or fight.
This response isn't meant to last very long and soon burns itself out. That's why panic attacks that last as long as an hour aren't very common.
What's the story with a panic attack that seems to go on and on? If that's happening to you, it's likely one of three things:
- Waves of panic attacks
- Aftereffects of a single panic attack
- Another health condition
Waves of Panic Attacks
If you have panic attack symptoms for an hour or more, you may really be having a wave of panic attacks, one after another. There's actually a period of recovery between them, though you may not notice it. The overall effect feels like you're being hit with one never-ending attack.
It's rare that this happens, though. The fight or flight response is so draining, it's hard to set it off that often.
How It Feels After a Panic Attack
A more likely possibility is that you had a single panic attack that leaves you feeling generally anxious, tired, and frayed. While panic attacks can be scary, they're not dangerous. But the fear they may cause you can be more unsettling than the attack itself. That's especially true if you've never had one before. When it's your first episode, you may think you're having a stroke or a heart attack.
How do you tell if it's a panic attack or high anxiety? It's tricky. It helps to talk to your doctor, but a closer look at your symptoms often can give you some clues.
A true panic attack tends to have clear, intense, physical symptoms -- a pounding heart, shortness of breath, and so on.
Anxiety can give you some of these, but they tend to be milder. Instead, you'll have more mental symptoms like a racing mind, lots of worries you can't stop, and a hard time focusing. You might also feel restless and have a hard time sleeping.
Another Health Condition
The condition that most closely mirrors a longer panic attack is generalized anxiety disorder. This is where you have a hard time controlling your worry, and you struggle to keep your anxiety in check.
But one of the challenges with panic attacks, long or short, is that the same symptoms happen with a wide range of other health conditions, including allergic reactions and heart and lung diseases. And if you have a tendency to panic, some health problems -- like low blood sugar, asthma, or an overactive thyroid -- can trigger a full-blown panic attack.
Keep in mind that typically, people mistake a panic attack for another health condition, not the other way around. Just because you're having a long panic attack, it doesn't mean you have something else going on. But it's worth checking it out with your doctor.