All about panic attacks

About one in four people experience panic attack symptoms at some point in their life. The reason a person has a panic attack may or may not be that they have a panic disorder. The causes of panic attacks are diverse and each individual case is different. The best thing to know though is that panic attacks and panic disorders can be managed and controlled.

This will be useful if...

  • you have had, or think you might've 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?

Panic attacks are short bursts of extreme stress or anxiety. They happen when your body's fight-or-flight reaction (the thing that lets you bolt from a predator or save others from danger) is triggered, even though there's not physical danger.

What are some panic attack symptoms?

People having panic attacks often get the following:

  • heart racing
  • 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?

Scientists don't know the exact causes of panic attacks, but they know it's got to do with brain chemistry and hormones. You're more likely to have panic attacks after a period of prolonged stress, or after a single, large, stressful event. They 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. One in four people have at least one panic attack at some stage in their lives. Many of them never have another one again. Those who do have further ones often don't go on to get a disorder. But if they've been happening often, or for a long time, it's probably time to get some help managing them.

How do you manage panic attacks?

There are strategies you can use to manage and control panic attack symptoms. It's up to you to find out what works. A doctor, counsellor or other mental health worker can quickly and easily help you plan strategies to beat panic attacks. Some common things that can help are:

  • 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
  • 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 someone who can help you work through your panic, and figure out what’s causing it.

What can I do now?

Last reviewed: 16 February, 2014
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2 Comments

  • Gabi    (133 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

  • Gerry    (139 days ago)

    I had been oversleeping and not wanting to do anything for some time. I had been put onto medication over the last three weeks and am being decreasing from it by my doctor since I had severe panic attacks and seizures which saw me in hospital for three weeks. I'm not a person who drinks caffeine but at the moment getting taught better ways to cope but find them rather difficult to cope with life. At times self harm has been a thought but nothing has ever eventuated from it

    **MODERATOR EDIT: speak in general terms about medication**