This content mentions panic attacks and anxiety, which some people may find triggering.
- What does a panic attack feel like?
- What causes panic attacks?
- What can I do during a panic attack?
- Ways to help yourself
- Getting support
What does a panic attack feel like?
When you have a panic attack, your body can react differently. 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
- pain in your chest or stomach
- shivering or shaking
- tingling fingers
- feeling like you’re not connected to your body
This can all be frightening, but remember that panic attacks aren’t dangerous and will pass.
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.
You may be diagnosed with panic disorder if you’re having lots of panic attacks for no obvious reason. 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?
As with many mental health conditions, the exact cause of panic disorder is not fully understood. But it's thought to be linked to a combination of things, including:
- a traumatic or very stressful life experience, such as bereavement
- having a close family member with panic disorder
- an imbalance of neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) in the brain.
What can I do during a panic attack?
When you feel a panic attack coming on, there are some quick strategies you can try:
- 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.
- Recognise this is a panic attack. It’s temporary, it will pass, and it isn’t a heart attack.
- 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.
- 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.
- Focus on positive, peaceful images. You could imagine yourself in a quiet, calming place like a beach or a forest.
- Try a grounding exercise. This can 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. Some people find mindfulness helpful for coping with certain anxiety disorders, but other people say it makes them feel worse.
- 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 have support groups and other services
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.
Your GP may offer you self-help resources such as workbooks or online CBT courses.
- cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – 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.
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
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