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:
- 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;
- 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.
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?
Last reviewed: Mar 11, 2013