What are panic attacks?

Panic attacks are sudden periods of intense fear or extreme anxiety. They occur when the “fright, fight or flight” response is triggered, although there is no sign of danger.

The “fright, fight or flight” response is a survival system that your body uses – it means that when your brain thinks it’s in danger, your body gets ready to fight or run away. If you’re experiencing a panic attack, the body will react like you are in a dangerous situation even though you’re not.

Panic attacks can happen without any warning. The attack could last for a few minutes or up to half an hour. After the attack, it might take some time to start to feel ok again.

It’s not unusual to experience a panic attack – one in five people will have at least one in their lifetime. After experiencing one panic attack,it’s also normal to worry about having another. You might even start avoiding situations or activities that you think might trigger an attack, like lecture halls, shopping centres, public transport, airplanes, lifts or being alone.

If you notice that you’re doing that, it might be a good idea to consider talking to someone about how you’re feeling, and getting some support to manage it. Check out face-to-face help.

What are the effects of panic attacks?

The effects of the attack vary from person to person. Some effects may include:

  • sweating
  • feeling short of breath, like you can’t get enough air
  • pounding heart
  • chest pains
  • feeling unsteady
  • feeling like you’re choking
  • dry mouth
  • hot or cold flushes
  • tingling
  • feeling faint
  • trembling
  • nausea or diarrhoea
  • feeling like you’re losing control or you can’t escape.

What causes the attack?

The causes of panic attacks are still being researched. However, there is evidence that different types of stress such as ongoing stress or a one-off stressful event is associated with panic attacks. The stress alters the chemicals in your body that influence the fight or flight response.

There are some illnesses such as diabetes, asthma, or inner ear complaints that have similar symptoms to panic attacks so it is a good idea to check with your doctor to see if the symptoms are due to the illness.

Depression, anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) have also been associated with panic attacks.

How can I manage a panic attack?

Self-talkremind yourself that this is only an uncomfortable feeling and it will pass. To help it do so, try and distract yourself by thinking about something different, like counting backwards in threes from 100 or sing the lines of your favourite song. See if you can concentrate on your breathing, focusing your attention on something else.

Diet- be aware that stimulants, like coffee, coke, anything else with caffeine in it (for example, energy drinks), drugs, alcohol, and smoking can all act as triggers for a panic attack.

Exercise - when you start panicking, a lot of hormones, like adrenaline, start pumping. They keep you feeling panicky. A way to help get rid of those hormones is to exercise, especially doing something that raises your heart rate. Regular exercise uses up naturally produced adrenaline and so can help lessen panic attacks.

Relax – relaxation techniques can be really effective. If you’re having a lot of panic attacks, it can help to get a relaxation CD. Listen to it for however long you like, every day. This can help to reduce your overall stress.Other forms of relaxation are also useful, such as yoga, Tai Chi, pilates, meditation, swimming and even going for a walk.

Breathing – try to practise some slow, controlled breathing while you’re not having an attack and when you get good at it, try to use it while panicking to slow your breathing down:

  • hold your breath and count to ten, then breathe out
  • breathe in through your nose for the count of three, then out through your mouth for the count of three – continue this for one minute
  • hold your breath again for the count of ten
  • do this for about 20 minutes a day (and you could break it up, like doing four five-minute sessions), and any time you’re feeling panicky

Find help – if you are having a lot of attacks, or if they are getting in the way of your life, it’s possible you are suffering from a panic disorder. It can help to see a psychologist, especially one that specialises in anxiety disorders. Check out face-to-face help for loads of information on the different types of help available, how it works and how to get it.

Cognitive behavioural therapy, and in some cases medication, can both help ease panic attacks. Panic attacks can be frightening experiences, but if dealt with properly, can be overcome. The important thing is that you look after yourself and seek help to avoid future panic attacks.


Comments Show all comments

  1. Roisin (Admin) says:

    Hi Colleen,

    I really am sorry to hear about everything you have been going through. It's normal to feel a little anxious about exams and sometimes this can help us study but it sounds like your anxiety is really negatively impacting your life. Getting panic attacks in exams and not being able to concentrate in class doesn’t sound like fun and even the worry of this happening again can make you feel more anxious.

    The leaving cert is a stressful time and can feel like a lot of pressure for everyone but it's important to remember that your test results do not define you and that there is more than one pathway to any career you would like.

    I would really suggest speaking to someone about what you are going through. A professional like a counsellor and psychologist can help you work out where this anxiety is coming from and help you deal with these panic attacks. They can help you come up with strategies like breathing or grounding exercises that can help you identify when these overwhelming emotions may be coming and deal with them without having a panic attack. This could take some time and practice but with the right support you will find something that works for you.

    Maybe there is someone in your school like a counsellor or your GP could refer you to someone in the local area that can help you with this. It's really great that you have come on here and talked about what you are going through. These kinds of issues are really common but with the right help you can get through this. You definitely don't ave to feel like this forever and finding someone to talk to about it is really a great first step.

    All the best,

  2. Colleen says:

    Hi I am 16 and in 5th year and I'm really struggling with my grades even thought I do put the effort in I just can't seem to do well especially in tests I have panic attacks and forget everything I've always had this but it just seems to be getting worse, because of this Im feeling really bad in class and can't concentrate lately I don't know what to do. I feel nasous and stark shaking and my brain goes into over drive I keep thinking I'm going to fail everything in my leaving cert and can't calm myself down.

  3. Fenella (Admin) says:

    Hi Ann,

    Thanks for your comment. I’m really sorry to hear about the panic attacks you are experiencing.

    Panic attacks can be really scary and once someone has one panic attack, it’s normal to worry about having another and this can lead us to stop doing things we usually would do, like going out on our own etc.

    I know it’s really tough right now, but there are lots of ways to manage panic attacks so that they no longer ruin your life. Remind yourself that the panic attack is an uncomfortable feeling that will pass, and try to distract yourself by listening to music or focusing on your breathing.

    I wonder have you spoken with anyone about how you feel and about the panic attacks? It can be difficult to think about talking with someone but it will be worth it. If you haven’t spoken with anyone yet, you might think about talking with a trusted friend or family member and letting them know how you feel. You’re not alone in this and this isn’t something you have to struggle with alone. There are always people who are there to listen and help.

    I would also encourage you to speak with your local doctor/GP. There’s lots of information and advice that they can give you on how to manage feelings of panic. Counselling might also help to reduce feelings of panic. If you would like to speak with a counsellor, www.counsellingdirectory.ie has a list of accredited counsellors working across Ireland.

    As well as talking to someone, there are some lifestyle changes you could think about making. Drinks containing caffeine, alcohol, drugs and smoking can all can act as triggers for panic attacks and it might help to avoid these if possible.

    Exercise can really help to reduce feelings of panic, so if you feel panicky, it might help to go for a walk or do another form of exercise you enjoy. Taking time out to relax is also important. It can be difficult to get time out to relax but try to work some relaxation time into your day. Listening to music, reading a book, doing yoga or practicing breathing exercises can all help to relax, but have a think for yourself about what might work for you.

    There’s a really nice breathing exercise detailed on the page above and I would encourage you to try it. It’s nice to do in general, but might be really helpful if you do start to feel panicky or anxious. It might help to stop or reduce those feelings so that you don’t get a panic attack.

    Keeping a diary can also help you to identify ‘triggers’ of stress or feelings of panic. Once you identify things that make you feel stressed or panicked, you can work on them to see if there’s a way of reducing the stress they cause.

    I hope this helps Ann and please remember that although it might feel like a nightmare now, there are ways of managing panic attacks and you won’t always feel this way. Do think about talking with a trusted friend, family member and with your local doctor or a counsellor.

    Take care,

  4. Ann says:

    I have started taking panic attacks and it is ruining my life...I am now afraid to go out on my own as I feel like I am going to collaspe as I feel I cant breathe. I am now trying to plan my day so I dont have to be on my own going shopping etc..I work and it is a nitemare but I have to get a taxi to and from work.

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