The facts about panic attacks

While we often hear about others having panic attacks, would you know if you were having one? We look at some of the symptoms.

About 1 in 10 Australians are affected by an anxiety-related condition such as panic disorder, and for many people, panic or anxiety attacks are part of their condition.

A panic or anxiety attack can be described as an overwhelming sense of fear and feelings of intense anxiety, accompanied by a range of physical symptoms. While we often hear about others having panic attacks, would you know if you were having one? We look at some of the common symptoms. 

Symptoms of a panic attack

A panic attack is a cluster of physical and mental symptoms that tend to all come together in a rush of intense feeling states. 
Symptoms can include:
  • Nausea
  • Sweating
  • Heart palpitations
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Tight chest
  • Shaking
  • Dizziness
  • Chills
  • Numbness or tingling sensations
  • Feeling detached
  • Feeling like you’re losing control
 A panic attack can feel downright scary. In fact, some people will go to a hospital emergency department, convinced they’re having a heart attack, when they’re actually having a panic attack. That is how full on they can be. 

Panic attacks seem to come out of nowhere

We often think there has to be a ‘reason’ to panic but sometimes it can just happen without an obvious reason. Other times it may be down to one of your triggers such as being in a crowded area, being stressed about a project at work, etc. 

Panic attacks may happen as a once off, but they can also happen regularly. When they happen on a regular basis, this can lead to someone becoming quite fearful of when they are going to strike again. 

When panic attacks recur often out of the blue, and become disabling, this is called a panic disorder. Panic disorder can also be accompanied by agoraphobia, a fear of going out, or avoiding places that you believe might trigger a panic attack.

Panic disorder affects approximately 5% of Australians in their lifetime, and almost 2% of people in the UK. While those figures might sound small, if you think about the size of the populations in both countries, that adds up to a lot of people. 
Relaxing on sofa

Tips for dealing with panic attacks

If you experience a panic attack, here are some things you can try to help relieve your symptoms:
1. Understand what it is
Recognising a panic attack and understanding what it feels like, can go a long way to helping you cope. Recognising your early warning signs, and the symptoms of a panic attack can help give you some reassurance of what is going on and that you’re not dying or going crazy, you’re just having a panic attack.
2. Calming your body down
Trying to keep yourself physically calm can help send ‘calm messages’ to your brain, and in turn may help you to think a little clearer. Practicing breathing slowly in through your nose for three seconds, holding for one second, and then breathing out slowly for three seconds may help. 
Progressive muscular relaxation is also useful; focus on mentally dividing the body into separate ‘sections’ (i.e. hands, arms, shoulders, neck, stomach, legs, feet etc) and tensing your muscles in one area at a time for seven seconds, then releasing that tension, and moving to the next section. 
3. Challenge those negative thoughts
Panic attacks are often accompanied by worrying thoughts. Thoughts such as “I can’t do this” or “I’m dying” or “I can’t handle it” which can make you feel even more panicked, and in turn heighten those physical symptoms. 
Learning to challenge those thoughts, and balance them out, can help short-circuit the panic attack. 
4. It will pass
The panic feels awful, but it will pass. It has before, and it will again. Repeating a calm mantra such as this can help in the moment to just gather yourself to weather the storm. Struggling with it, or beating yourself up for feeling panicked can often just make it worse. You know what it is, you know what happens, and you know it will pass. 
5. Seek help
One of the biggest issues with panic attacks and panic disorder is that often people don’t seek help. 
Panic attacks can be managed with the right tools and support. If your panic attacks are happening more and more often, or your fear of having a panic attack is growing and you’re struggling to cope, the best thing you can do is to see your GP who can refer you to a health specialist. 
By understanding what panic attacks are and practicing some coping strategies to use in the moment (and the key is to practice every single day and not just wait until a panic attack arises), you can help empower yourself to manage your anxiety.

 For more information on panic attacks, check our article: 'What to do when panic attacks'.

If you'd like to learn more about anxiety or mental health, click here for additional Blue Room resources

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