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 can help 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
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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. It can be hard to know where to find the right support you need. ReachOut NextStep is an anonymous online tool that recommends relevant support options based on what you want help with. Try ReachOut NextStep to learn about the support options available for you.

What can I do now?