Panic attacks: symptoms, causes and treatment

Exploring panic attacks and what you can do if you suffer from panic disorder.

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This page was medically reviewed by Dr Oluwagbenga Odeyemi (MBBS, MPH, MRCPsych, PGDip. in Clinical Psychiatry), Consultant Psychiatrist at Priory Wellbeing Centre Birmingham.

What is a panic attack?

Panic attacks are characterised by sudden, unexpected bouts of acute and debilitating anxiety, often accompanied by distressing physical symptoms.

These physical symptoms can be so severe that first-time sufferers might believe they're having a heart attack or a nervous breakdown. Over time, panic attacks can become more frequent, and the fear of having a panic attack becomes embedded, resulting in what can feel like a ‘vicious circle’.

Panic attacks can affect people differently; while some people may be able to overcome a panic attack on their own and without other people noticing, others might need more intensive help.

Symptoms of a panic attack

Panic attack symptoms can vary from person-to-person, and can be categorised into physical, psychological and behavioural/social symptoms. You might not experience all the symptoms when you feel a panic attack coming on, but some of the most common symptoms include:

symptoms of a panic attack

  • Feelings of dizziness 
  • Chest pains and shortness of breath - tightness of the chest and feeling as though it’s a struggle to breathe
  • A racing or pounding heart
  • Hyperventilating
  • Feeling as though you're choking
  • Nausea
  • Abdominal discomfort
  • Muscle spasms and palpitations
  • Excessive sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Social withdrawal and isolation – not wanting to meet with family and friends, in order to try and hide your condition and reduce the chances of a panic attack happening
  • Reduced school or work performance
  • Inability to manage day-to-day tasks effectively
  • Frequent visits to emergency departments
  • Seeing your GP more than usual
  • A feeling of being out of control and disconnected from your surroundings
  • Believing that you're having a heart attack, or that you’re going to die
  • Having other mental health conditions such as intense anxiety, depression and stress
  • Hopelessness, confusion and frustration
  • Paranoia and low self-esteem
  • Feeling tearful and emotionally tired – finding that you're crying more than usual and for no apparent reason

What can cause panic attacks?

Genetics have been found to play an important role in how likely it is that someone will struggle with panic attacks. Research suggests that having a first degree relative such as a parent or sibling who suffers from panic attacks, makes it more likely that you'll also develop panic attacks at some point in your life.

Other causes of panic attacks can be broken down into psychological, pharmacological (relating to the uses and effects of drugs) and environmental factors.

Psychological causes

  • Chronic stress
  • Low self-esteem
  • An existing mental health condition such as anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Phobias - people may experience panic attacks as a direct result of exposure to a phobic object or situation
  • Lack of assertiveness - a growing body of evidence supports the idea that people who suffer from panic attacks engage in a passive style of communication or interactions with others

Pharmacological causes

  • Alcohol, drugs or medication withdrawal
  • Medication side effects
  • Excessive caffeine intake

Environmental causes

  • Chronic physical illnesses such as cancer
  • Significant life changes such as losing a job, becoming a parent, and moving house
  • Experiencing a significant personal loss, including bereavement, or the breakdown of a relationship with a romantic partner
  • ‘Maintaining’ behaviour such as avoiding panic-provoking situations or environments, anxious/negative self-talk, dysfunctional beliefs, and withheld feelings

Although there are many reasons you may struggle with panic disorder, sometimes panic attacks can happen for no reason at all. Unexpected panic attacks have no apparent trigger and can happen at any time.

What should I do if I feel a panic attack coming on?

When you feel the signs of a panic attack coming on, it's important to know what you should do in the moment. Here are some recommendations on what to do when one does start.

  1. Stay still and control your breathing
  2. Use positive mantras
  3. Distract yourself from your thoughts
  4. Address and challenge your thoughts

How are panic attacks treated?

Panic attacks are one of the characteristic symptoms of panic disorder, which is a type of anxiety disorder. To treat panic disorder, you may be advised to try therapy for panic attacks, as well as medications as part of a treatment plan. You might also receive treatment for anxiety if you’re struggling with other anxiety symptoms.

Depending on the severity of your attacks, tried and tested treatment for panic attacks may include:

  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) - CBT aims to address any dysfunctional thought patterns that may be contributing to your panic attacks, in order to help you re-evaluate these thoughts in a healthier way
  • Medication – certain antidepressant medication, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), or other medications, can be used alongside CBT to further support in the management of panic attacks

Alongside these treatments, you may also be advised to practise mindfulness activities as well as breathing techniques, which can help you during a panic attack.

Panic attack treatment at Priory

While panic attacks can be distressing and difficult to cope with, it's important to understand that with effective treatment, they can be managed. Getting help for your panic attacks may feel daunting, but it's a crucial step in helping you to overcome your panic disorder and improve your quality of life.

If you think that you or someone you know is struggling with panic disorder, it's important to recognise that you’re not alone, and that expert treatment is available. We can deliver comprehensive treatment for panic attacks on an outpatient, day care or inpatient (residential) basis, depending on the severity of your condition and the intensity of the support you need.

Panic attack treatment near me

We have panic attack treatment centres located throughout the country, meaning you can access the support you need in a location that’s convenient for you. To find your nearest panic attack treatment centre, please use the search form below.

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