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Up to 40 per cent of Australians will experience a panic attack at some point in their lives. Learn about what panic attacks are, what are the symptoms of panic disorder and how to manage panic attacks.

This can help if you:

  • think you’ve experienced a panic attack
  • want to know more about panic attack symptoms
  • are looking for ways to manage panic attacks
  • want to know more about panic disorder.
Boy with hands together sitting on bed

What is a panic attack?

A panic attack is an intense rush of fear or anxiety that is accompanied by at least four of the following symptoms:

  • racing heart or palpitations
  • sweating
  • shortness of breath or feelings of choking
  • dizziness, trembling or shaking
  • numbness or a tingling sensation
  • hot and cold flashes
  • fear of dying or of losing control
  • queasy stomach or nausea
  • feeling detached from oneself and one's surroundings.

A panic attack can be a one-time thing, but many people experience repeat episodes. They sometimes strike out of nowhere, without warning, and are extremely frightening when the person doesn’t realise that their symptoms are due to anxiety.

Someone having a panic attack can become caught in a cycle: they could become more and more anxious, which increases the severity of their symptoms. It’s also common to be anxious about having panic attacks.

What is panic disorder?

If you experience a panic attack, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have panic disorder. A panic disorder is characterised by repeated and unexpected panic attacks that severely disrupt the person’s life. Living with a panic disorder may involve worrying about future panic attacks and changing your behaviour as a result.

You could be experiencing a panic disorder if you:

  • have frequent, unexpected panic attacks that don’t have an obvious trigger
  • worry about having another panic attack
  • are acting differently because of the panic attacks, such as avoiding places where you’ve previously had a panic attack.

Long-term effects of panic attacks

If you have a panic disorder, the recurring panic attacks can take a heavy emotional toll. The memory of the intense fear that you felt during the attacks can negatively affect your self-confidence and disrupt your everyday life. Eventually, you could experience some of the following effects.

Anticipatory anxiety

This is when you feel anxious and tense, even when you aren’t having a panic attack. The anxiety comes from the fear of having a future panic attack. This ‘fear of fear’ is present most of the time and can be extremely draining.

Phobic avoidance

This is when you avoid certain places or situations, based on the belief that something in that situation caused a previous panic attack. You might also experience this if you avoid situations that are difficult to escape or where help would be unavailable if you had a panic attack.

How to manage a panic attack

If you experience panic attacks, you should seek professional help. A registered mental health professional can provide evidence-based treatment to manage panic attacks. They will help you learn how to intervene in the panic cycle and control the symptoms. Learn more about treatments for panic attacks, panic disorders and anxiety here.

If you’re not ready to see a professional, there are a few general strategies for managing anxiety. There are things you can do immediately to help calm you down if you have an attack. Try:

  • slow breathing, to help reduce hyperventilation, which causes the feelings of lightheadedness and chest tightness during a panic attack
  • relaxation or progressive muscle relaxation exercises to help you reduce your general level of anxiety and become less prone to panic attacks.

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