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 a panic attack 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, worry, low mood or depression.
Panic attacks give rise to feelings of fear and anxiety. They may appear 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.
You can find more information in our panic attack symptoms page. For information on what happens in the body during a panic attack, go to our page on what is a panic attack.
Anyone may experience a panic attack.
However, women tend to be more prone to the problem and some find that these are associated with certain times of their menstrual cycle – panic attacks can be a feature of pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS). Fluctuations in hormonal levels also cause pregnant women and those going through the menopause to be more prone to panic attacks.
Panic attacks are more likely to affect younger people as well as those experiencing high levels of stress, such as during illness, after a death in the family, moving house or a new job.
They have a greater tendency 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!
If you are prone to attacks, the best thing you can do is to try to stop a panic attack before it develops and symptoms become out of hand.
The initial stages of a panic attack are not usually too severe and still within your control. It is important to breathe deeply and try to think calmly. Taking deep breaths will keep the correct balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your body, preventing symptoms such as tingling or muscle spasms. Thinking calmly will tell your body that there is no need to react excitedly to a specific situation, often preventing the panic attack from developing further.
There are a number of steps you can take to help yourself prevent 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 found in licensed herbal remedies such as Stress Relief Daytime to help manage stress and anxiety
For more information, follow the link to our page on treatment of panic attacks.
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 regular panic attacks