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. 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,

  2. 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.

  3. Fenella (Admin) says:

    Hi Orla,

    I know it’s not easy to write your feelings down like this, but I’m really glad you did. I know you’re confused and it's hard to know what's going on, but there’s nothing wrong with you. It sounds like you’re feeling quite anxious and that this anxiety is showing up as a physical need to go to the bathroom. This happens all of us at times, and it’s a normal response to nerves or anxiety. It sounds like this is happening you a lot though and that needing to go to the bathroom a lot causes anxiety in itself because you feel like you can’t relax anywhere where you’re not easily able to get up and go quickly to the bathroom.

    You mention a few things happening at school that make you feel anxious and stressed and that might be the cause of the anxiety you feel. No one deserves to feel sick every morning going into school and I hope I can pass on some information to help. Things will get better Orla, you won’t always feel this way.

    I wonder have you spoken with anyone about how you feel? Sometimes saying things out loud and talking them through with someone you trust can make a huge difference. I know it can be really tough to think about talking so openly and honestly but it really can help. You’re not alone in this and you don’t have to struggle on alone. There are lots of people who can help. Maybe you could talk with one of your parents, or another family member or a close friend? Is there a counsellor at school or a teacher you trust you could chat with? It is ok to talk about these things and the way you feel and to get some support. Read up about the benefits of talking to someone

    Building up our confidence levels and looking after our mental health can really reduce the amount of anxiety we feel and can help us to cope better with stressful times like being asked to read in front of the class.

    As well as talking to someone you trust Orla, lifestyle changes can make a big difference to how we feel and can build up our confidence. Getting exercise, even going for a walk, can help to burn off any extra adrenaline that may build up and cause us to feel anxious. Getting the right amount of sleep can help, as well as eating healthily and taking time out to relax and do the things we enjoy.

    5th year can be a stressful year in school as you move into the senior cycle and try to cope with the extra pressures and demands from teachers. It’s important to take time out for you and to relax. Learning some relaxation techniques might be really worthwhile. There’s a breathing exercise on the relaxation page on ReachOut.com and you could start with learning that and practising it whenever you feel anxious or stressed.

    Keeping a journal and writing down how you feel can help you to identify how things that happen during your day make you feel. Lots of people find this quite helpful.

    If you ever want to talk to someone, but don’t want to talk to someone you know, you can contact Childline 24 hours a day by calling 1800 66 66 66. You can text Talk to 50101 between 10am and 4pm every day and they also have an online chat service at www.childline.ie available 10am to 4am every day.

    Having the right support from trusted family, friends and your school counsellor or another teacher at school can make a huge difference, so please do talk with someone you trust Ciara and have a think about making some small lifestyle changes and learning some relaxation techniques. You’re not alone in this and things can get better.

    Take care,

  4. Orla says:

    I'm not sure if I suffer from anxiety or not but everything I have read online fits in perfectly with how I am feeling.
    I am 17 and I am currently in 5th year in secondary school, recently in classes I've felt the urge to pee constantly, I've got checked and there is no infection but I seem to have that feeling when ever I know I can't get up and go to the bathroom for example on a bus or in class. This is really effecting my school life because I can't concentrate at all in classes because I'm worried I might pee myself even though when I go to the bathroom the feeling has passed until I sit down in my next class and the cycle repeats it's self.
    I also struggle in a certain class where my teacher always picks me to read the whole chapter of a book or my whole essay to the class. I struggle with this because I'm quite shy and as soon as I begin to speak I loose my breath and it feels like I'm not getting enough air, I also am very shakes for about 15 minutes after. My teacher knows I struggle with reading out loud in class but he constantly picks me to read every day, every time I tell someone they say he's only trying to help and I wish that was the case but I truly believe he does it on purpose because since I started in my school he never liked me at all.
    I'm just really confused as to what is wrong with me and is there anything to help because I feel sick going into school every morning knowing I'll have to read and knowing I'll have to go to the bathroom every 10 minutes.
    I'm not sure if I'm evening writing under the right topic but I'm just desperate for an answer and someone to help me.

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