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 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?

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:

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: 28 July, 2014
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  • Gabi    (481 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!


  • Gerry    (487 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**