Panic Attacks

Heart pounding? Shortness of breath? Feel like you’re going to pass out but don’t know why? Take a deep breath: you could be having a panic attack. Here’s what you need to know.

Boy in dark shadows

"What's happening to me?"

What is a panic attack?

A panic attack is a severe attack of anxiety and fear that often comes on without warning. Lasting anything from five to 20 minutes, there’s normally an intense rush of symptoms that include:

  • Pounding heart
  • Shortness of breath
  • A sense of impending doom
  • Sweating
  • Feeling like you might throw up
  • Thinking you might faint
  • The urge to run… though you’re not sure where
  • A terrible fear… though you’re not sure what of
  • A sense that you’re ‘not really there’

What causes a panic attack?

Nobody knows for sure. It usually happens when the brain perceives a danger and goes into ‘fight or flight’ mode – i.e. it’s trying to equip you to either run away or battle the danger. But as terrifying as this sounds, panic attacks are harmless. They’re not a sign that you’re losing it, or that you’ve got a serious medical condition.

If you suffer with anxiety this might simply be another way that that manifests itself. Also, worrying you’ll have another panic attack can actually trigger them in the future. They can also be a symptom of a not-so-obvious problem, such as a deep-rooted issue from your childhood, or something as simple as drinking too much coffee.

What should I do if I have a panic attack?

Because they can take you by surprise it’s easy to, well, umm, panic. However, it’s important to try to stay calm and breathe as slowly and as deeply as you can. Read The Mix’s step-by-step guide to coping with a panic attack.

This will help in the short-term, but if you’re experiencing regular panic attacks you should see your GP. They’ll refer you to an expert who can help you recognise the early warning signals and teach you some coping strategies.

What does treatment involve?

Panic attacks are most commonly treated by cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). This usually involves talking through your thought habits and learning how to change them.

“Panic attacks are often triggered by a process of ‘catastrophisation’ – where you think everything’s bad and scary,” says clinical psychologist Dr Justine McMahon. “With CBT, it’s about rewiring your brain and changing the negative thoughts into positive thoughts.”

You may also be encouraged to keep a diary of your panic attacks, so that once you identify patterns you can start to break them.

How can I manage them during exams?

Your teachers/tutors are there to support you as well as teach you, so it’s a good idea to explain what’s been happening beforehand. As well as offering some reassurance and understanding, there are small things they can do to make life less stressful for you.

“Seats next to the door, ‘exit cards’ if you need to get out of lessons, private rooms for exams – there are always options available,” says Dr Justine.

Does that mean I have to tell other people?

One of the things that can really stress people out is worrying it will happen again, and that others will judge you. But it’s important to know that panic attacks are nothing to be ashamed of and are more common than you think. If fact, at least one in 10 people in the UK have occasional panic attacks, and according to psychotherapist Terence Watts, young people are particularly prone to them.

“It’s because they have a lot of pressures,” he says. “Coming to terms with things like their sexual urges, and worrying about if those are OK, for example, is one of the biggest causes. With young people, there’s always the worry that you’re the only one feeling this way. But trust me, you’re very definitely not.”

It’s up to you to decide whether or not to tell anyone, but you may be surprised at how understanding friends and family can be. You may also be telling someone who suffers themselves.

More than anything, I’m just embarrassed

“This is a really common reaction,” says Dr Justine. “But I can’t stress enough how much you don’t need to be. Everyone is different, everyone has their own concerns, and that’s OK. You should never feel ashamed of being yourself and having quirks.”

Remember, there are ways to manage them, and despite the intensity of symptoms panic attacks aren’t dangerous and are unlikely to hurt you in any way. Try not to be too angry with the attacks; they’re actually your body trying to help you – to tell you something’s not feeling right.

Next Steps

  • AnxietyUK run helplines, email support, live chats and therapy services for people with anxiety disorders. 08444 775 774
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.
  • Need help but confused where to go locally? Download our StepFinder iPhone app to find local support services quickly.

By Caroline Corcoran

Updated on 29-Sep-2015