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Fact Sheet

Panic attacks

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What are panic attacks?

Panic attacks are sudden periods of intense fear or extreme anxiety.  They occur when the “fight or flight” response in your brain is triggered, even though there is no sign of danger. The fight or flight response is a survival system that your body uses. It means that when your brain thinks it is in danger, your body gets ready to fight or run away.  If you are experiencing a panic attack, the body will react like you are in a dangerous situation even though you are 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 O.K. again. It is not unusual to experience a panic attack. At least 10% of people will experience a panic attack this year.

After experiencing one panic attack, it is not uncommon to worry about having another. You might even start avoiding situations or activities that you think might trigger an attack, like busy shopping centers, public transportation, airplanes, elevators or isolation.

What are the effects of a panic attack?

The effects of a panic attack vary from person to person. Some might include:

  • Sweating;
  • Feeling short of breath, or like you can’t get enough air;
  • A pounding heartbeat;
  • Chest pains;
  • Feeling unsteady;
  • Feeling like you’re choking;
  • A dry mouth;
  • Hot or cold flashes;
  • A tingling feeling;
  • Feeling faint;
  • Trembling;
  • Nausea or diarrhea;
  • Feeling like you’re losing control or you can’t escape.

If you are experiencing any of these effects, it is important to look after yourself.

What causes panic attacks?

The causes of panic attacks are still being researched. But there is evidence that stress as such is associated with panic attacks. Stress alters the chemicals in your body that influence the fight or flight response.

There are some illnesses like diabetes, asthma or inner ear problems that cause 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 have also been associated with panic attacks. Check out these fact sheets for more information on these issues.

How can I manage panic attacks?

Self-talk. Remind yourself that this is only an uncomfortable feeling and it will pass. To help it pass, try and distract yourself by thinking about something different, like counting backwards in threes from 100 or singing the lines of your favorite song. You can also concentrate on slowing your breathing down to focus your attention on something else. Check out the fact sheet on Challenging Negative Self-talk for more info.

Diet. Be aware that stimulants—like coffee, soft drinks or anything else with caffeine in it—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 through your body. These hormones keep you feeling panicky.  A way to help get rid of them is to exercise, especially by doing something that raises your heart rate. Regular exercise can help lessen panic attacks.

Relaxation. If you are having a lot of panic attacks, it can help to get a relaxation CD and listen to it for half an hour (or 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, meditation, swimming and going for a walk.

Slow breathing. This is something you can practice while you’re not having an attack, and when you get good at the technique, you can try to use it while panicking to slow your breathing down:

  • Hold your breath and count to 10, then breathe out.
  • Breathe in through your nose and count to three. Then breathe out through your mouth and count to three. Continue this for one minute.
  • Hold your breath again to the count of 10.
  • Do this for about 20 minutes a day (you can break it up, like doing 4 5-minute sessions), and any time you’re feeling panicky.

Seek help. If you are having a lot of panic attacks, or if they are preventing you from doing everyday things that you enjoy, it is possible that you are suffering from an anxiety disorder. You might want to see a counselor or other mental health provider that specializes in these disorders.

Cognitive behavioral therapy, and in some cases medication, can help ease panic attacks.  Check out the cognitive behavioral therapy fact sheet for more info about this form of treatment.

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.

How do I know this?

Anxiety Matters
National Institute on Mental Health

Last reviewed: Mar 11, 2013

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Comments

Responses

  • avatar2

    Reply - Quote

    Yamaha_9

    I broke up with my boyfriend a week ago and I don’t know why but it’s been harder on me then it has him! Over the weekend I was laying in my friends bed and I was balling my eyes out listening to music and watching a whole bunch of videos and pictures and then I started breathing really fast and lost a lot of air and my body was trembling and I couldn’t stop sweating and o tried to [...] which didn’t work. Was that a panic attack?

    • avatar1

      Reply - Quote

      ReachOut

      Hi Yamaha_9,

      It does sound like that could have been a panic attack, but keep in mind we are not medical professionals and cannot diagnose symptoms.

      I am so sorry that you’ve been through such a tough time lately. Do you have someone you can talk to about these feelings and emotions that you’re struggling with? I know it can be hard to open up, but it can also really help to talk to someone.

      There’s also always the option of calling the youth helpline Your Life Your Voice, they’re free, confidential, and available 24/7 at this number: 1-800-448-3000. They also have the options to text, chat online, or email, and you can find out more about those services from this link here: http://www.yourlifeyourvoice.org/Pages/home.aspx

      Stay strong, things may be hard now, but they will get better! There are brighter days ahead.

      Take care,
      The ReachOut Crew

  • avatar2

    Reply - Quote

    Coconut

    I’m 13 and still in school I’m not sure if it’s a paic attack or not in most History lesson when my teacher asks me a question I go bright red and have a hot flush then a cold flush my hands start sweating and sometimes shake I don’t really like answering question because of this but it only happens manly in this subject.

    • avatar1

      Reply - Quote

      ReachOut

      Maybe getting more comfortable with the material would help you feel more confident in this particular class?  Could you ask for extra help, or just talk to the teacher about your anxiety with answering questions?  It’s good that you’re aware of it, though.  Don’t be afraid to discuss it with someone that you’re close to, and that you trust.

      Take care,
      The ReachOut Crew

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