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.

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  1. roisin says:

    Hi Emma,

    It sounds like what you are going through is very stressful. It must be really hard to have to plan around you fear. Although it sounds like you know this fear is irrational the feelings of anxiety you are experiencing are very real and can be hard to work through.

    I know your parents are somewhat aware of the situation but it's important that they know just how scary and debilitating this is for you. The anxiety around being alone is stopping you having the normal teenage life you would like to lead. If you feel shy about telling them or find it hard to get the words out you could show them what you have written to me here.

    These feelings are not your fault or something that you should just be able to 'get over'. Although it may sound scary talking to someone outside of the situation can really help. A professional like a counsellor or psychologist will have the skills to help you work through this and come up with strategies so that you can start to feel comfortable about being alone. Your GP should be able to recommend someone for you to talk to.

    The important thing to remember is that there is plenty of support out there for you and plenty of people who have been through similar things. Talking to your parents and finding the right support will be the first steps to work through your fear and have the sort of life you would like to have.

    I hope this helps,
    Roisin

  2. Emma says:

    I'm a teenager and I suffer from panic attacks every time I can't find my parents , even around the house. I like to be alone at times, like in my room, once I know where my parents are around the house. I refuse to stay alone in the house , even though I wish I could have the courage to stay home alone. If I'm in a busy place I don't mind being alone at all, I just fear being alone with nobody around. My parents know I don't like being alone, however I don't think they realise how stressed I get when I am alone and cannot find them. I even get stressed about getting a lift home and waiting outside the door on my own until somebody answers, so I try arrange it where my parents have to collect me. I wish I wasn't so scared to be alone but I don't know how to become comfortable with it. I would really appreciate your help.

  3. Nikki says:

    Hi Claris,

    I’m sorry to hear that you are going through such a difficult time. Experiencing panic and anxiety, especially for long periods of time, can be really tough, especially when you’re raising three kids at the same time. If you find that you are experiencing shortness of breath, and that the panic is lasting for longer periods of time, it would be beneficial to visit your GP. They may be able to talk to you about your other options, or be able to prescribe you medication that will help reduce your anxiety to make it more manageable. Check out our factsheet on what you can do to get the best help for tips on preparing for your GP visit.

    It is good that you are seeing a counsellor, but if you don’t feel like you are getting any better, it might be time to try a different therapist or different type of therapy, like CBT. Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is very helpful for learning how to deal with many different problems, especially anxiety and panic. However, keep in mind that it will take attending therapy on a regular basis for several months to full overcome anxiety and panic. It takes regular practise to learn to how to reduce and cope with it.

    In the meantime, be sure you are doing what you can to help yourself. When you are feeling anxious, try using deep breathing and relaxation techniques, getting enough sleep, and doing some sort of physical activity. All of these things have been proven to reduce anxiety. For more tips, check out minding your mental health.

    Hope this helps. Keep Reaching out.

    -Nikki

  4. ReachOut.com says:

    Hi Paul,

    Thanks for your comment. It’s really positive that you’re looking for help and we hope we can point you in the right direction.

    This must be really frightening and we would encourage you to speak to your local doctor/GP to help you figure it out. Our GP is generally the first place we go with any kind of health concern. If your GP finds that feelings of panic and anxiety are causing the symptoms, then they can give you information to help prevent panic attacks. If they think there might be another cause, they will try to identify that cause to help prevent the symptoms you are experiencing at the moment. If you don’t already have a GP, you can find one on the ICGP website.

    It’s really great that you’ve shared this with us and as a next step we wonder if you have a trusted friend or family member that you could share this with? Talking with a trusted friend or family member really can help and can be a great support. It can give us a fresh perspective and can relieve stress and tension that can build up inside us if we try to bottle up our worries and feelings.

    It might help to start to keep a record, like a diary, of when the dizziness and other symptoms happen. You might start to see patterns or identify triggers or causes for those feelings. If you identify a trigger or cause, you can then try to work out why it might be causing the dizziness and other symptoms and try to work out a way to stop it.

    We hope this helps Paul and that you do speak with your GP.

    Take care,
    Fenella

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