Panic attacks

A panic attack is a feeling of sudden and intense fear. It can come on quickly and for no apparent reason. Panic attacks can be very frightening, but they’re not dangerous.

*Last updated: 9 July 2021

What does a panic attack feel like?

When you’re having a panic attack, your body can react in different ways. You may experience:

  • breathlessness, or feeling like you’re struggling to breathe or choking
  • a racing or pounding heartbeat
  • feeling sick, faint or dizzy
  • feeling very hot or cold
  • nausea
  • pain in your chest or stomach
  • shivering or shaking
  • sweating
  • tingling fingers
  • feeling like you’re not connected to your body.

You might feel like you’re having a heart attack, going to collapse or even die. This can be frightening but remember that panic attacks aren’t dangerous.

Panic attacks usually last between 5 and 20 minutes. Symptoms usually peak within 10 minutes and then start to fade. If it lasts for longer, you may be having multiple panic attacks (although this is rare) or you may be experiencing other symptoms of anxiety.

If you’re having lots of panic attacks for no obvious reason, you may be diagnosed with panic disorder. This is a type of anxiety disorder.

You might feel worried about going out in public because you’re afraid of having another panic attack. If this fear becomes intense, it may be agoraphobia. The NHS website has more information about agoraphobia.

What causes panic attacks?

When we feel we’re under threat, our body activates our ‘fight or flight’ response. It automatically releases hormones that help us act faster and make our hearts beat faster. This is helpful when we’re in danger because we can fight back or escape. Panic attacks happen when our ‘fight or flight’ response is triggered but we aren’t in any danger.

Panic attacks happen at different times and for different reasons for everyone. You might notice you experience them when life is stressful, or that particular places or activities trigger them. Or there might be no obvious trigger for them at all.

What can I do during a panic attack?

When you feel a panic attack coming on, there are some quick strategies you can try.

  1. Breathe. Focusing on breathing slowly and deeply can help you manage rapid breathing or anxious feelings. The NHS website has a calming breathing technique you can try. Or the meditation website Calm has a simple animation you can follow to slow down your breathing.
  2. Recognise this is a panic attack. It’s temporary, it will pass, and it isn’t a heart attack.
  3. Don’t fight it. Stay where you are if you can. Leaving might mean you start to fear the place you had the panic attack and avoid it in future.
  4. Find an object to focus on. Pick something you can see and notice everything you can about it. Your panic may subside as you focus all your energy on the object and describe it in detail to yourself.
  5. Focus on positive, peaceful images. You could imagine yourself in a quiet, calming place like a beach or a forest.
  6. Try a grounding exercise. This can be help if you feel out of touch with your body or surroundings. One technique is to think about five things you can see; four things you can feel; three things you can hear; two things you can smell; and one thing you can taste.

If you have a friend with you, it can be helpful to tell them what’s happening. They can reassure you it will pass and that the symptoms won’t hurt you.

Ways to help yourself

Small changes can help prevent further panic attacks.

  • Practice breathing exercises regularly. They can help prevent panic attacks and help while they’re happening too.
  • Physical activity can reduce stress and tension and improve your mood.
  • Eating regular healthy meals can keep your blood sugar stable which can boost your energy and mood.
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol and smoking if you can. These can make panic attacks worse.
  • Try mindfulness. It’s a way of being fully present and engaged in the moment that can help with anxiety.
  • Join a peer support group. They bring together people who have had similar experiences to help each other. Anxiety UK, No Panic and TOP UK (the OCD and Phobia Charity) all run support groups and other services.

Getting support

Speak to your GP if you’re experiencing panic attacks. They may examine you to rule out other conditions that could be causing the symptoms.

Treatment for panic attacks aims to reduce the number of attacks you have and ease your symptoms. Your treatment will depend on your symptoms.

Self-help resources

Your GP may offer you self-help resources such as workbooks or online CBT courses. Have a look at the NHS free apps library to see if there’s anything that might help you.

Talking therapy

Your GP can refer you for talking therapy or you can refer yourself. You may be offered:

  • cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – this can help you identify and change unhealthy thinking patterns that trigger your panic attacks
  • exposure therapy – you gradually expose yourself to situations you fear. Over time, you will feel an increasing sense of control over the situation and your anxiety will decrease
  • applied relaxation – this can help you learn to relax your muscles in situations that usually make you anxious or tense.

Medication

You may be offered medication to help with your symptoms. This could be an antidepressant, anti-anxiety medication, beta-blockers to treat the physical symptoms of anxiety, or tranquillisers if your anxiety is severe and having a significant impact on your life.

Further resources and information

NHS App Library of self-help and self-management apps

Mind’s information page on panic attacks

No Panic’s panic attack resource

Be Mindful online mindfulness course