All about panic attacks

Up to 40% of Australians will experience a panic attack at some point in their lives but having a panic attack doesn’t necessarily mean that they have a panic disorder. Panic attacks and panic disorder have many different risk factors and symptoms, but they can be managed and controlled.

This will be useful if:

  • You have had, or think you may have had a panic attack
  • You want to know about panic attack symptoms
  • You're looking for ways to control and manage panic attack symptoms
Girl with pink hat and scarf

What's a panic attack?

When someone panics, they experience an intense rush of fear or anxiety, which often leads to physical symptoms, such as shortness of breath or a racing heart.

If a person doesn’t realise these physical symptoms are a result of their anxiety, they can become even more anxious because they’re not sure what’s going on. The increase in their anxiety level causes their symptoms to get more intense, which leads them to feel even more anxious, causing their symptoms to get even more intense….. and so on. When this happens to a person, it’s known as entering into a ‘cycle of panic’, otherwise known as a panic attack. 

What are some panic attack symptoms?

Panic attacks are not at all fun. People having panic attacks often experience the following symptoms:

  • Heart racing
  • Hyper-ventilating; (breathing extremely hard)
  • Sweating
  • Dry mouth/short breath/choking sensation
  • Chest pain
  • Extreme fear
  • Light-headedness/dizziness
  • Feeling detached from themselves

If you've had these things come on suddenly and forcefully with no external reason, chances are you've had a panic attack.

What causes panic attacks?

Panic attacks are caused by entering into a cycle of panic, as explained above. There are a number of risk factors that make someone more likely to experience panic attacks:

  • Being stressed out for a really long time
  • Experiencing a really big, stressful event
  • Having a family history of panic attacks
  • Having a  medical condition or certain biological factors that are a trigger for panic attacks

Panic attacks can also be triggered or worsened by using drugs and alcohol.

I think I've had a panic attack. Does that mean I'm sick?

Not necessarily, no. While there is such a thing as a panic disorder, up to 40% of Australians will have a panic attack at some point, and many of them never have another one again. Even if they do have more than one it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll go on to develop a panic disorder. That said, if you think you’ve been experiencing panic attacks, and they've been happening often, or for a long time, it's a good idea to visit a doctor for a check up. Managing them with assistance from someone trained will be much easier and faster than if you try to manage them on your own.

How do you manage panic attacks?

A mental health professional can help you plan strategies to beat panic attacks, often by using psychological therapies such as cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT). They will work with you to directly treat the panic attacks by figuring out how you can intervene in the panic cycle and control the symptoms.

However, there are also some common things that can help manage panic attacks, without directly treating the cause. They will help you reduce your anxiety, in turn reducing the chance of having a panic attack:

  • Exercise – this gets rid of hormones like adrenaline
  • Relaxation techniques
  • Cutting back on alcohol, cigarettes and drugs
  • Distracting yourself with mental activities, like counting
  • Slow breathing - mobile apps like Breathe can be very helpful. 
  • Improving your self-talk – notice it, talk yourself through it, and challenge the negative thoughts you have about it
  • Medication

Talk to your doctor about a referral to see a clinical psychologist who can help you work through your panic, and figure out what’s causing it.

What can I do now?

Last reviewed: 18 June, 2015
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4 Comments

  • hartley_    (61 days ago)

    HeyMissy! That sounds like a lot to deal with! Im sorry you have been experiencing this. Its great that you have been to see a doctor though. Have you been to a few to see if they all come to the same conclusions?

    Im wondering from your post if you would like to ultimately not have to use medication to deal with this? You could discuss this with your GP - they may be able to work something out or refer you to someone to help you deal with this?

  • HeyMissy    (66 days ago)

    I've had a lot of stressful things happen in a short period of time. I deal with the problems and do not worry about them. I move on & do not think about all the atressful situations i just had to deal with. Hours later while doing mundane tasks my body breaks down. I'm collapsing in the shower, struggling to breath when washing dishes or cooking my daughter lunch. My Dr has said my body is struggling to cope with all of the chemicals that get released during high stress moments. I take care of myself as best as possible, but we are having to use medication let my body relax so it can remember how to properly process those stress chemicals.

  • Gabi    (601 days ago)

    Hey Gerry,

    I can only imagine how frustrating and frightening it would be to go on medication to fix one thing but then ending up in hospital! Unfortunately as I have not experienced sleeping problems myself I can not offer you much advice in that area. On the other hand, it is great to hear that although you have had thoughts of self-harming you have stayed strong and not physically hurt yourself... you should be proud of that! With this in mind, if thoughts of self harming become overwhelming or you would like to talk to someone about what you have been going through I suggest giving lifeline a call on 13 11 14

    Keep fighting!

    Gabi

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