Panic attacks

A panic attack is an experience of sudden and intense fear, often accompanied by physical symptoms such as a racing heart, rapid breathing, or upset stomach1. Some research suggests that 13.2% of people have experienced a panic attack at some point in their lives2.

Symptoms

Symptoms of a panic attack include experiences of sudden and intense fear lasting between five minutes to a half-hour and can be accompanied by physical symptoms such as1:

  • Rapid breathing
  • Feeling breathless
  • Sweating
  • Feeling very hot or cold
  • Feeling sick
  • Feeling faint or dizzy
  • Tingling fingers
  • Shivering or shaking
  • Racing heart or irregular heartbeat (palpitations)

Many people have experienced a panic attack at some point in their lives and experiencing a panic attack is not a mental health problem itself. Though they can feel very frightening or distressing, they are not physically dangerous1.

However, recurrent panic attacks and overwhelming fear of experiencing panic attacks can be a symptom of an anxiety disorder such as panic disorder1. If you experience regular panic attacks, or overwhelming fear of experiencing panic attacks you should speak with your GP or healthcare provider.

Causes

The physical symptoms of panic attacks are caused by the body’s “fight or flight” response to the feelings of anxiety and fear1. Panic attacks can often be triggered by stressful life events, though they may also occur for no clear reason.

Getting Support

There are a range of approaches for the management and prevention of panic attacks, and treatments for anxiety disorders like panic disorder. If you are experiencing panic attacks, speak to your GP or healthcare provider who will help you find an approach that meets your needs.

Some examples of the types of support for managing and preventing panic attacks include:

Breathing Exercises

Breathing exercises (focusing on breathing slowly and deeply) can help to manage the rapid breathing and feelings of anxiety commonly experienced during a panic attack3. For further information and instructions for breathing exercises, you can visit the NHS Moodzone webpage on breathing exercises.

Diet & Exercise

Regular exercise, eating well, and moderating intake of caffeine, alcohol, or cigarettes can help to manage stress, which can often trigger, or worsen, panic attacks and feelings of anxiety3.

Psychological Therapies

This can involve working through thoughts, feelings, and behaviours with a psychologist or other mental health professional and includes techniques like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)3.

Other Approaches

There may be other treatments or approaches available that are not outlined here. If you are considering support for panic attacks, we recommend getting in touch with your GP or primary care provider to discuss which approach may be best for you.

Further Information and Resources

This page was last updated on 13/12/2018

References

  1. NHS. (2018). Moodzone: Are you having a panic attack. Retrieved from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/understanding-pa...
  2. deJonge, P., Roest, A.M., Lim, C.C.W., Florescu, S.E., Bromet, E., Stein, D., … et al. (2016). Cross-national epidemiology of panic disorder and panic attacks in the World Mental Health Surveys. Depress Anxiety, 33(12), 1155-1177. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5143159/
  3. NHS. (2018). Moodzone: How to deal with panic attacks. Retrieved from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/coping-with-pani...