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What are panic attacks?

Reading time: 5-7 minutes

A panic attack is an intense response to fear that can result in several physical symptoms within your body.

These symptoms are often sudden and frightening. More often than not, panic attacks occur in the absence of real danger, but your body reacts to the situation in a disproportionate way.

Panic attacks usually last between 5-20 minutes. Some people might only experience one panic attack in their lifetime, while others may have them frequently.

Because panic attacks can happen at any time, some people find it scary to go outside by themselves or venture into public places (this fear might become so severe that it develops into agoraphobia).

Specific things can trigger a panic attack, such as certain places or activities. This is different for everyone - one person might be prone to panic attacks when they’re using public transport, while another might experience them before exams or interviews.

Sometimes, panic attacks can happen frequently, unexpectedly, and with no apparent trigger. This might be a sign of panic disorder. You can find out more about panic disorders on the NHS website, but it might be worth seeing your GP if you’re wondering about a diagnosis.

What can they feel like?

There’s no doubt about it – panic attacks can be quite terrifying at the time. You may feel like you have no control over your body or that you might pass out. Some people feel like they’re having a heart attack or are going to die.

Some of the physical reactions include:

  • Racing heart
  • Dizziness or light-headedness
  • Changes in temperature
  • Sweating or shaking
  • Feeling sick
  • Painful chest or stomach
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Shaky or jelly-like legs
  • Feeling disconnected from yourself or your surroundings

Whether you experience a lot of the things on the list or just a few, it might help to remember that panic attacks are only temporary and your body is just responding to fear or anxiety in an intensified way. There are also things you can do to make managing them a little easier.

What might help?

During a panic attack, you might find it hard to focus on anything other than how you’re feeling in the moment. If you can though, try some of the tips below.

  • Acknowledge the panic attack. It can be hard when you’re scared, but try to recognise that what you’re experiencing is a panic attack and that it won’t last forever. Knowing that you’re not having a heart attack can make you feel calmer.
  • Breathe deeply. Focus on breathing deeply and slowly. Try inhaling for 5 seconds, holding for 1 second, and exhaling for another 5 seconds.
  • Practice mindfulness. Concentrate on the sounds and sensations around you, as this can help reconnect you to reality. You might focus on the sound of cars or the texture of a cushion.
  • Focus on a specific object. Place all of your attention on a single object. Concentrate on its colour, shape, any sounds it makes – pretty much anything about it that you notice! This can help take your mind away from the panic attack itself.
  • Close your eyes. If you’re in a particularly overwhelming place or situation that triggered the panic attack in the first place, it may be helpful to shut out your surroundings. This can also allow you to focus on your breathing.

Taking care of yourself after a panic attack - and in everyday life - is also very important. Making time for self-care and talking to someone about your experiences can do wonders for your anxiety levels and general wellbeing.

  • Give yourself what you need. After a panic attack, you may feel exhausted and shaken. Give yourself the self-care you need, whether that’s sitting in the garden, eating something, or reading a book.
  • Talk to someone. It can be reassuring to tell a trusted person about your panic attack and let them know how you’re feeling. You can also let them know what might have caused the panic attack and how they can help you in the future.

Where to go for more support 

Seek support from 42nd We provide a number of face-to-face services, all of which offer something slightly different depending on what’s best for you. If you want to chat to someone online via text, you can register for ongoing online support too. We also hold weekly drop-in sessions so that you can speak with a worker without an appointment.

Overall, though, every service provides you with someone who will listen, acknowledge your feelings, and work with you to explore where your panic attacks might come from. You can read about our services here. 

  • AnxietyUK’s website has lots of resources for dealing with anxiety and stress, including panic attacks. You can also call their helpline on 03444 775 774. 
  • No Panic provides support and resources for people struggling with panic attacks and other anxiety disorders. You can call the No Panic helpline on 0300 7729844. 
  • Childline has plenty of information on coping with panic attacks. If you’re under 19 and are feeling overwhelmed or just want to talk to someone, you can also phone them on 0800 1111.
  • Visit a GP. If panic attacks are interfering with your life and stopping you from doing the things that you enjoy, you may want to visit your GP. They’ll be able to discuss potential forms of treatment with you and may make a formal diagnosis.

By: Ruby Guyler 

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