Panic attacks

Panic attacks are sudden bouts of fear and anxiety which may occur without any obvious cause or ‘trigger’.

What is a panic attack?

Panic attacks are episodes of sudden anxiety, intense fear or a feeling of acute apprehension. They are usually brief and resolve without the need of any treatment within a quarter of an hour. Although ‘harmless’, panic attacks can give rise to a loss of confidence, especially if the sufferer finds attacks difficult to control or manage.

Panic attacks are relatively common. It is said that 5% of people will experience panic attacks at some point in their lives. Other research suggests that up to 20% of adults are prone to panic attacks.

Although panic attacks can occur randomly without any obvious cause, they are most often associated with a ‘trigger’ such as being under stress or when receiving bad news. People more prone to the condition are those with a tendency to anxiety or worry.

This page provides a quick overview to the symptoms, causes and treatment of panic attacks.

Symptoms of a panic attack

Panic attacks cause feelings of anxiety and fear. They can arise without warning, without any obvious trigger or cause.

Symptoms of panic attacks overlap greatly with symptoms of anxiety and may be divided into:

  • Physical symptoms of panic attacks - palpitations, sweating, shivering, a choking feeling, tingling and feeling short of breath
  • Emotional symptoms of panic attacks – loss of confidence or self-esteem, becoming prone to negativity or feeling low in mood, poor concentration or memory.

For more information, follow the link to our page on panic attack symptoms.

Who gets panic attacks?

Anyone can experience a panic attack. However, women tend to be more prone to attacks and some find that these are associated with certain times of their menstrual cycle. As woman aproach the menopuse, fluctuations in hormones lso make it more likely that they will experience panic attacks.

Panic attacks are more likely to affect younger people as well as those experiencing one of the major life-events causing stress, such as a death in the family, house move or a new job.

Panic attacks also tend to affect people more if they are ‘worriers’ or those who find that their capacity to cope with stress is lower than that of their friends or colleagues. For some, what would seem a ‘normal’ stressful event can lead to panic attacks - for instance, just before an exam or a job interview.

However, it is not just negative stress that can lead to panic attacks. They can arise as a result of extreme excitement – for instance, meeting your favourite celebrity!

Causes of panic attacks

Panic attacks arise because of an exaggerated response to the body’s normal reaction to stress or danger. This response has been described by scientists as the ‘fight or flight’ reaction and is one of our ‘primitive reflexes’.

In our caveman days, we had to be very alert to the dangers surrounding us. When meeting a wild beast, we had the choice of whether to ‘fight it’ for food, or to ‘run away’ from it. In these life-threatening circumstances, a number of chemicals are released into our bloodstream to help our bodies work more efficiently.

These chemicals include adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol. They make our heart beat faster, our blood pressure goes up and we sweat - symptoms we associate with anxiety.

During a panic attack, very large quantities of these stress chemicals are released into the blood giving rise to more severe symptoms. So paradoxically, the very mechanism that makes us better at fighting mammoths, if overdone, can make us freeze and function poorly.

People experiencing panic attacks find that episodes occur at periods of their life when they are under stress, or when they are worried or anxious. However, we face stress all the time, so why doesn’t everyone get them all the time?

What seems to happen is that our mind and body can cope with stress up to a certain level and when we relax and ‘let off steam’, we release the stresses accumulated during the day by winding down at night.

This is sometimes described as a leaky bucket being filled with water. The amount of water (stress) added depends on the situation you are in – more stress means the bucket fills faster. If you are not able to release this stress fast enough, the bucket starts filling up.

As the bucket fills, you become progressively more anxious. There will come a point where the bucket starts to overflow – this is the point where you experience a panic attack.

What can I do about panic attacks?

There are some simple exercises and techniques you can learn to control your breathing and relax your muscles when you feel an attack coming on.

In addition, there are a number of steps you can take to help yourself prevent and manage panic attacks:

  • Reduce your intake of caffeine (found in both tea and coffee) as this worsens symptoms
  • Exercise more
  • Learn to relax more effectively
  • Use stress management techniques
  • Consider the use of counselling, support groups or psychotherapy
  • Use herbal remedies such as valerian to help manage stress and anxiety

See our page on panic attack treatment for more information

What should I look out for?

Most people experiencing panic attacks will find that these are either single or isolated episodes which do not return. If your panic attacks are recurrent or appear to be ‘constant’, you should seek professional advice.

In addition, see your doctor if:

  • You experience prolonged bouts of anxiety
  • You have constant palpitations or experience an irregular heartbeat
  • Feel frequently short of breath, especially on exercise or in bed
  • Feel suicidal or depressed
  • Experience severe anxiety or panic symptoms

Further reading:
Panic attack symptoms
Panic attack treatment

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