A panic attack is an occurrence of strong anxiety and fear (and accompanying physical reactions) that seems to happen without an obvious cause. The symptoms of a panic attack can be very intense and frightening, especially if you’re not used to experiencing them. Panic attacks are a result of our ‘fight or flight’ instinct engaging, without the threat of immediate physical danger being present.
Panic attack symptoms
- Intense feelings of being swamped or overwhelmed
- Galloping heart rate
- Extreme perspiration
- Constricted or tight chest
- Breathing difficulties
- Uncontrollable shaking or trembling
- Feeling faint or dizzy
- Tightness in the stomach or nausea
- Strong feelings of fear
- Feeling distant or detached
The attack can last from a few minutes to half an hour, with the peak intensity usually occurring within ten minutes before subsiding.
What causes panic attacks?
Panic attacks are still being studied and are not yet fully understood, but we do know that some of the contributors include prolonged stress, traumatic events, illness and overly intensive exercise.
They can occur at any time and can begin from a calm or highly anxious state.
How do panic attack symptoms differ from anxiety?
Although they are closely related and feel quite similar, there are a few differences between the symptoms of panic attacks and anxiety. Anxiety usually has a shorter duration and tends to have a specific ‘trigger scenario’ (such as a job interview), so often fades away when the situation passes. Conversely, panic attacks seem to happen suddenly, often without the presence of a specific reason or cause, which can make them all the more frightening. Of course everyone experiences these things differently, but in general panic attacks are usually much more all-encompassing and overwhelming than feeling anxious.
Is it a panic disorder?
A panic disorder is usually marked by the frequent experience of panic attacks. Attacks occur fairly often and can prevent normal functioning. Attacks happen unexpectedly and the possibility of repeated attacks weighs heavily on the sufferer’s mind. Someone experiencing a panic disorder may make major changes to their behaviour and habits to minimise the chances of an attack happening.
How to stop a panic attack
Self-help and self-talk
You can help yourself to stop a panic attack:
- Re-assure yourself that a panic attack is not life threatening and it will usually subside within a few minutes.
- Control and slow your breathing by inhaling through the nose and exhaling through your mouth.
- Close your eyes and count to five on each inhale and exhale.
- Focus on your immediate surroundings – pick a point of interest and direct your attention to something external.
Seek professional help
If you experience regular panic attacks, consulting a professional can help you find ways to manage occurrences. Your GP can usually offer some advice and can also conduct a physical examination to see if the attacks result from an illness of some sort like asthma, heart problems or diabetes.
A counsellor or psychologist can also help you manage attacks using techniques like cognitive behaviour therapy. These strategies can help you identify and challenge thoughts and behaviours that can cause feelings of panic, such as self-monitoring and relaxation techniques.