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 everything you need to know about panic attacks.

a young man sat on a bench reading a book outside

Jump to:

  1. What is a panic attack?
  2. Symptoms of a panic attack
  3. What’s the difference between a panic attack and anxiety attack?
  4. What should I do if I have a panic attack?
  5. Treatment for panic attacks
  6. Should I tell other people about my panic attacks?
  7. How can I manage panic attacks at school?
  8. I feel embarrassed talking about my panic attacks

What is a panic attack?

A panic attack is a severe attack of anxiety and fear that often comes on without warning. They can often last anywhere between five to 20 minutes, and can go as quickly as they come on.

What are the symptoms of a panic attack?

The symptoms of a panic attack can vary from person to person, and can be felt with different intensities. You may feel one or two of these, or all of them at once. There’s usually 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’

As terrifying as these symptoms sound, panic attacks are harmless. They’re not a sign that you’re losing it, or that you’ve got a serious medical condition. And while you might feel like you’re in pain during the panic attack, this will subside once you begin to come out of it.

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. 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’s the difference between a panic attack and anxiety attack?

Panic attacks and anxiety attacks are very similar in the sense that you might feel some of the same symptoms – but they are different conditions. A panic attack is a very intense rush of fear that often happens for no reason at all, and if they happen regularly over a period of time then they could be a sign of a panic disorder.

There has been less research into anxiety attacks, which means that they’re kind of open to interpretation. Generally speaking, anxiety attacks are accepted to be a direct response to a stressor – for example worries about money or exams. They can be experienced by anyone, and aren’t necessarily a sign of an anxiety disorder. 

What should I do if I have a panic attack?

It’s much easier said than done, but if you think you might be beginning to have a panic attack then you must try to stay as calm as possible and breathe slowly. Take a deep breath in, try to hold it for a couple of seconds and then breathe out.

If someone you trust is nearby, it can really help to let them know that you’re starting to panic. Not only will they be able to keep an eye on you to check that you’re safe, but it might ease some of the pressure for you if you know that someone is looking out for you.

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.

 Read The Mix’s step-by-step guide to coping with a panic attack

Treatment for panic attacks

Panic attacks are most commonly treated by cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). In short, CBT looks at patterns in your thoughts and behaviour to help identify exactly what leads to your panic attacks. If you do go for CBT (also known as talking therapy, you may be asked to keep a diary;

“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.”

Learn more about Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

Should I tell other people about my panic attacks?

It’s completely up to you whether you choose to speak to a friend, family member or a GP about your panic attacks – but it really can help you towards getting some help to stop the panic attacks from happening. You might be feeling embarrassed and that you’ll be judged for being open about it, but panic attacks are very common so there’s nothing to be ashamed of.

In 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.”

How can I manage panic attacks at school?

If you’re experiencing panic attacks whilst at school, this can really start to get in the way of your education – and you might be worried that it will affect your exam results. If you feel able to, it may be worth chatting to your teacher about it so that they can offer you some reassurance. There are also some small things they can do to make life less stressful for you.

I feel embarrassed talking about my panic attacks

Everyone is different, everyone has their own concerns, and that’s OK. You should never feel ashamed of being yourself and having quirks.

There are always ways to manage panic attacks, even though whilst you’re experiencing them you’re unlikely to feel like the feeling will ever go away. The important thing to remember is that panic attacks are usually not dangerous and are unlikely to harm you. The best way to get help with them is to open up to someone you’re close to or to a GP as soon as you feel comfortable,  so that you can start the process of managing your panic attacks. 

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 Toni

Updated on 21-Oct-2020