Stress, anxiety and depression

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How to deal with panic attacks

A panic attack is a feeling of sudden and intense anxiety.

Panic attacks can also have physical symptoms, including shaking, feeling disorientated, nausea, rapid, irregular heartbeats, dry mouth, breathlessness, sweating and dizziness.

The symptoms of a panic attack are not dangerous, but can be very frightening.

They can make you feel as though you are having a heart attack, or that you are going to collapse or even die. 

Most panic attacks last somewhere from five minutes to half an hour.

How to handle a panic attack

Professor Paul Salkovskis, Professor of Clinical Psychology and Applied Science at the University of Bath, says it's important not to let your fear of panic attacks control you.

"Panic attacks always pass and the symptoms are not a sign of anything harmful happening," he says. "Tell yourself that the symptoms you're experiencing are caused by anxiety."

He says don't look for distractions. "Ride out the attack. Try to keep doing things. If possible, don't leave the situation until the anxiety has subsided."

"Confront your fear. If you don't run away from it, you're giving yourself a chance to discover that nothing's going to happen."

As the anxiety begins to pass, start to focus on your surroundings and continue to do what you were doing before.

"If you’re having a short, sudden panic attack, it can be helpful to have someone with you, reassuring you that it will pass and the symptoms are nothing to worry about," says Professor Salkovskis.

Breathing exercise for panic attacks

If you’re breathing quickly during a panic attack, doing a breathing exercise can ease your other symptoms. Try this:

  • Breathe in as slowly, deeply and gently as you can, through your nose.
  • Breathe out slowly, deeply and gently through your mouth.
  • Some people find it helpful to count steadily from one to five on each in-breath and each out-breath.
  • Close your eyes and focus on your breathing.

You should start to feel better in a few minutes. You may feel tired afterwards.

Visit the No Panic website for another breathing exercise to calm panic.

Ways to prevent panic attacks

"You need to try to work out what particular stress you might be under that could make your symptoms worse," says Professor Salkovskis. "It's important not to restrict your movements and daily activities."

  • Doing breathing exercises every day will help to prevent panic attacks and relieve them when they are happening.
  • Regular exercise, especially aerobic exercise, will help you to manage stress levels, release tension, improve your mood and boost confidence.
  • Eat regular meals to stabilise your blood sugar levels.
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol and smoking – these can make panic attacks worse.
  • Panic support groups like No Panic have useful advice about how you can effectively manage your attacks. Knowing that other people are experiencing the same feelings can be reassuring.
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can identify and change the negative thought patterns that are feeding your panic attacks.

Is it panic disorder?

If you feel constantly stressed and anxious, particularly about when your next panic attack may be, you may have panic disorder.

People with panic disorder may avoid situations that might cause a panic attack. They may also fear and avoid public spaces (agoraphobia).

"There's no quick fix, but if your attacks are happening time after time, seek medical help," says Professor Salkovskis.

Panic attacks: Colin's story

Colin Hammond describes how panic attacks affected his life and became a series of phobias and anxieties, and how therapy helped his recovery.

Media last reviewed: 25/04/2015

Next review due: 25/04/2017

Page last reviewed: 05/01/2016

Next review due: 05/01/2018

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Moodzone: Panic attacks

Dr Chris Williams describes the vicious circle that fuels panic attacks and explains how to tackle this. This podcast is one of an eight-part series for Moodzone.

Media last reviewed: 02/03/2015

Next review due: 02/03/2017

Are you having panic attacks?

Panic attacks usually last from 5 to 20 minutes. Symptoms can include breathlessness, a racing heartbeat and trembling

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