What is a Panic Attack?

A panic attack is a fear response that causes your body to exaggerate its normal reaction to stress, danger or excitement. They can happen suddenly, without warning, and can occur for no clear reason or trigger.

What causes a panic attack?

A panic attack is brought on by your body utilising its fight-or-flight response system to react to stress. Research has shown that panic attacks can be associated with a variety of different factors.

It is often related to significant changes in your life situation, such as getting married/divorced, moving to a new house, and having a child. It is also possible that you have a higher likelihood of having a panic attack if members of your biologically related family have experienced them.

What are the signs of a panic attack?

Many people who are experiencing a panic attack often think they are having a heart attack due to the increased heartrate and impending feelings of doom. You are probably having a panic attack if you are experiencing any of the following symptoms:

  • Heart palpitations. This is where your heart feels like it is fluttering or pounding irregularly and/or with more force than usual.
  • Sweating and trembling. Feelings of panic can cause your body to react in a way that increases restlessness and nervousness, causing you to sweat more and tremble in fear.
  • Lots of factors can cause a shortness of breath, including having a chest infection, being overweight, and smoking. It is also often linked to panic attacks.
  • Uncomfortable physical sensations. Common physical sensations involved in panic attacks are dizziness, ringing in your ears, tingling fingers and feeling nauseous.

How to deal with a panic attack?

If you are experiencing any of the symptoms outlined above and have a sudden rush of panic, it can be very frightening. It is, however, possible to mitigate some of these intense feelings that accompany a state of panic. The following strategies can help to control an attack:

  • Remain rational. During a panic attack it is important to keep in mind that that they usually only last for a maximum of 15 minutes. With this is mind, you should not try to fight the attack and instead focus your energy on remaining calm.
  • Breathing exercises. A great way to control panic is to control your breathing. Breathe in slowly and deeply through your nose, then breathe out slowly through your mouth. A good strategy for this is to count from 1 to 5 with each inhale and exhale.
  • Focus on positive thoughts. At times of increased panic, it is important to try and remain as peaceful as possible. A good way to try this is by looking at relaxing images or listening to peaceful music.

When to get help?

Most panic attacks are harmless and come and go within 10-15 minutes. Yet you should seek out professional medical help if any of the following occurs:

  • Your panic attack lasts longer than 20 minutes, even after trying breathing mitigation strategies.
  • Your heartbeat remains irregular after the panic attack has ceased.
  • You are regularly having panic attacks. This could potentially mean that you have a panic disorder.
  • You are feeling unwell even after your breathing has slowed down and returned to normal.

How can you prevent future panic attacks?

To prevent further panic attacks from impacting upon your life, it may be beneficial to follow one of the prevention strategies outlined below:

  • Practice the breathing exercises to take pre-emptive action on potential incoming panic attacks.
  • Participate in relaxing therapies such as aromatherapy and massages.
  • Exercise regularly to reduce stress and tension.
  • Do activities such as pilates and yoga to get the dual benefits of doing both relaxing breathing and exercising.
  • Avoid excessive consumption of sugar, alcohol, caffeine, and smoking, as all of these have been linked to exacerbating panic attacks.
  • Take comfort in the knowledge that panic attacks are fully treatable and it is possible for anyone to make a complete recovery from them.

Get involved in support groups

You should utilise your friends and family if you are going through problems with panic attacks and talk to someone close to you who is able to listen and help alleviate the burden of your panic attack symptoms.

If you are unable to talk to someone close, there are many support groups available in the UK for the sole purpose of helping people in these situations. These support groups often have people who have been through similar experiences to what you are going through, and this can help you feel more comfortable opening up and sharing your problems.

Here is a list of useful links to websites containing veritable support groups in the UK:

If you are unable to connect with any of the above resources, you can also ask your local doctor to provide you with information about panic disorder support groups near you.