I get asked this question frequently by my clients that have panic attacks. Usually it starts with the recounting of a recent panic attack where many of the symptoms felt like serious medical conditions. The most typical being a heart attack. Some of the more common symptoms reported to me are; hard to breathe in deeply, heart pounding, sweating, tingling, tunnel vision and a feeling as if about to faint.
Clients also tell me that they have a general feeling of being "not well." Along with that is a preoccupation with a fear of dying. Clients have intense worry that they are sick with a disease or will suffer some tragic accident. They often make frequent visits to the doctor with real physical symptoms, have many tests and often the tests and exams find nothing wrong. It can be very embarrassing to keep returning to the doctor when the symptoms do not go away only to be told over and over that there is nothing wrong. Clients often feel stigmatized as a hypochondriac and then dread going to the doctor or retreat from seeking medical care all together.
So how do you tell the difference between a panic attack symptom and something more serious? It's virtually impossible at first to tell the difference. If you have never experienced a panic attack before, there would be no other logical explanation to your symptoms other than something is terribly wrong and thinking that you are going to die. It is only after it happens a few times are you able to start distinguishing a pattern. Understanding that these symptoms are not related to an underlying medical condition is a joint venture between you and your doctor. It's always important to get any physical symptoms checked out first by a medical doctor prior to shifting the focus to panic symptoms.
Once you get an all clear from your doctor you can begin to focus on the panic symptoms and identify the patterns. It's important to note all the symptoms; when they appear, the order and duration. Also, how long in between are the panic attacks occurring. Identifying and distinguishing panic symptoms from physical symptoms related to a medical condition is an important step to reducing and eliminating panic attacks.