This page was medically reviewed by Dr Oluwagbenga Odeyemi (MBBS, MPH, MRCPsych, PGDip. in Clinical Psychiatry), Consultant Psychiatrist at Priory Wellbeing Centre Birmingham.
What does a panic attack feel like?
If experiencing a panic attack, you may feel an overwhelming and intense fear, alongside a range of physical symptoms like shortness of breath, sweating, and heart palpitations. Panic attacks can feel like you’ve lost control and that the world around you is closing in.
Symptoms may vary depending on the severity of the panic attack, but usually, the symptoms would last for approximately 10 minutes.
What causes a panic attack?
Panic attacks can happen when you feel unsafe, stressed, or anxious. If your surroundings are crowded or unfamiliar, your body may instinctively think you’re in a fight or flight scenario and cause a panic attack. Unfortunately, they can also happen unexpectedly.
Research demonstrates that there are a number of key factors that may also cause panic attacks. These include:
- Hereditary/genetic factors
- Biological factors
- Short-term emotional triggers, such as bereavement
- Maintaining causes (situation avoidance, dysfunctional beliefs)
- Lack of assertiveness
- Certain medications
- Substance withdrawal
- Chronic and/or serious illness
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 don’t have to experience all the symptoms when you feel a panic attack coming on, but some of the most common symptoms include:
Physical symptoms of panic attacks:
- 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
- Feeling as though you are choking
- Abdominal discomfort
- Muscle spasms and palpitations
- Excessive sweating
- Trembling or shaking
Behavioural/social symptoms of panic attacks:
- 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 occurring
- Reduced school or work performance
- Inability to manage day-to-day tasks effectively
- Frequent visits to emergency departments
- Seeing your GP more than usual
Psychological symptoms of panic attacks:
- A feeling of being out of control and disconnected from your surroundings
- Believing that you are having a heart attack, or that you’re going to die
- Having other mental health conditions such as intense anxiety, depression, stress and worry
- Hopelessness, confusion and frustration
- Paranoia and low self-esteem
- Feeling tearful and emotionally tired – finding that you are crying more than usual and for no apparent reason
When you feel the signs of a panic attack coming on, it is important to know what you should do in the moment. Here, are some recommendations on what to do when one does start.
- Stay still and control your breathing
- Use positive mantras
- Distract yourself from your thoughts
- Address and challenge your thoughts
What can I do to reduce panic attacks?
Seeking professional help for panic attacks is hugely important in order to receive established treatment and therapy for what can be a distressing condition. However, there are also several practical steps that you can take yourself, as a means of trying to reduce your panic attacks. These include:
- Avoid smoking
- Reduce your alcohol, caffeine and/or cannabis intake
- Practise relaxation techniques such as yoga
- Spend time with family and friends
- Exercise regularly
- Try to get enough sleep
Managing panic attack symptoms
When you begin to understand what may trigger your panic attacks and what symptoms you often experience, you can begin to manage your condition. Understanding your symptoms and knowing your triggers can help cope with a panic attack when they happen, but can also reduce how often you have them, as your triggers can be limited.
Speak to friends and relatives about your problem, as it is very likely that you will receive a great deal of support and understanding from your friends and relatives, which is hugely important in the treatment and recovery journey. You can also speak to your GP about your symptoms and seek professional panic attack treatment.
It’s important to remember that if you’re struggling with panic attack symptoms, you are not alone. Panic attacks are incredibly common for all kinds of people from lots of different backgrounds, so don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Panic disorder takes time to understand and conquer.
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