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 when your brain thinks it’s in danger, your body gets ready to fight or run away.
If you’re experiencing a panic attack, your body will react like you are in a dangerous situation even though you’re not.
How common are panic attacks?
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 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 get some support to manage it.
What are the effects of panic attacks?
The effects of the attack vary from person to person. Some effects may include:
- 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
- feeling faint
- 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.
There are some illnesses such as diabetes, asthma, or inner ear complaints that have similar symptoms to panic attacks. Check with your doctor to see if the symptoms are due to one of these illnesses.
Depression, anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) have also been associated with panic attacks.
How can I manage a panic attack?
Remind 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.
Try 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.
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.
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.
Relaxation techniques can be really effective. If you’re having a lot of panic attacks, it can help to get a relaxation CD or try some meditation/relaxation apps.
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.
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.
Getting help for panic attacks
If you’re 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 the Take action section 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.