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. ReachOut.com says:

    Hi Jessica,

    We can hear that anxiety and panic are really affecting your college life. There are definitely things your college can do to help you and we hope you give these things a try before thinking too much about leaving college. Most colleges in Ireland have health centres and counsellors available for students. They are usually free to access and help students with a huge range of personal and college related concerns, worries and anxieties.

    Your college should have a student union welfare officer and we would suggest talking to your welfare officer and letting them know how you are feeling. Your welfare officer is there to help with things like this and there may be a few things they can do for you, as well as helping to liaise with your lecturers to let them know of what you’re going through and what they can do to help you, i.e letting you take breaks when you need to or making sure you get any notes you might miss.

    I wonder if you are getting any ongoing support from a counsellor or your local doctor to help with the panic and anxiety you experience? If not, it would be worth talking to your local doctor to get some information and advice and talking with a counsellor to help you deal with the panic and anxiety and hopefully reduce it. To find a counsellor, you could ask your local doctor for a recommendation, or you could look up www.counsellingdirectory.ie.

    There’s lots of information on the page above about panic attacks and ways of dealing with them and we also have information on generalised anxiety.

    There may also be some useful information in our Minding our mental health section. In terms of helping to reduce panic and feelings of anxiety, exercise, diet, sleep and relaxation can play a big part.

    Please do look up and contact your college health centre, talk with your student union welfare officer and if you’re not already getting support from a health professional, do talk with your local doctor and contact a local counsellor.

    I hope this is helpful Jessica.

    Take care,

  2. Jessica says:

    Hi, Ive suffered with GAD and panic disorder for a few years now. When I was in school I had a really supportive group of people (friends and teachers) around me who knew when I was finding things tough and understood when I needed to take a break. Now that Im in college I feel really lost and that Im falling through the cracks. Although I love my course and worked really hard to get into it, the hours are intense and I cant afford to miss any time. Because of the type of anxiety disorder that I have, If Ive had a panic attack in a certain place before, and I go there again it triggers my attacks. Lecture halls really stress me out as I feel I cant just leave if I have a panic attack. I am wondering if there is anything universities do to help students with issues like this? I am considering dropping out of college not because I don't like my course (I actually love it) but because I feel like I am falling behind and the stress of that is only worsening my anxiety. Thanks!

  3. 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,

  4. 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.

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