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Dealing with panic attacks

Panic attacks: Colin's story

Media last reviewed: 25/04/2015

Next review due: 25/04/2017

A panic attack is an experience of sudden and intense anxiety. Panic attacks can have physical symptoms, including shaking, feeling confused or disorientated, rapid heartbeats, dry mouth, sweating, dizziness and chest pain.

The symptoms of a panic attack normally peak within 10 minutes. Most episodes (attacks) will last for between five minutes and half an hour.

Phobia sufferers will try to avoid whatever is causing their fear, but in some cases, such as agoraphobia, this can seriously restrict their movements.

Professor Paul Salkovskis, a psychologist at King's College London, 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. "It's important not to restrict your movements and daily activities."

Symptoms of panic attacks

During an attack you experience a whole range of frightening symptoms, and worrying thoughts may go through your mind.

"Many people have a sense of impending disaster, and think they're going to faint, lose control or even die," says Salkovskis.

"You need to tell yourself that this is not going to happen and 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 Salkovskis.

"Then you need to try to work out what particular stress you might be under that could make your symptoms worse.

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

Ways to beat panic attacks

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

Learning to relax, which isn't as easy as it sounds, can help to relieve some of this stress and tension, and may also help you to deal more effectively with your panic attacks when they occur.

Regular exercise, especially aerobic exercise, will help you to manage stress levels, release tension, improve your mood and boost confidence.

Phobia support groups have useful advice about how you can effectively manage your attacks. Knowing that other people are experiencing the same feelings can be reassuring.

Antidepressants and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) are the two recommended treatments for panic disorder.

CBT aims to identify and change the negative thought patterns and misinterpretations that are feeding your panic attacks.

"CBT is particularly effective. Most people will be completely free of panic disorder at the end of therapy and will remain that way," says Salkovskis. 

Page last reviewed: 05/08/2014

Next review due: 05/08/2016


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The 7 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

GemmaK23 said on 12 August 2015

Has anyone ever had a panic attack that was brought on by the sight of a total stranger? I've always worked in customer focused jobs. Nightclubs, retail and now in a bakery. Always front of house, meeting new people everyday/night. I changed jobs around 8 months ago to a well known bakery (rhymes with legs) and a customer came in and made a compliment about my voice. No big deal but now when he comes in I start sweating and shaking. I literally can not serve him! I don't find him attractive, the poor bloke is not rude, he is always polite and smiles but I absolutely dread him coming in each day. I don't know why. If the shop is quiet and I see him come in then I can breath deeply, serve him and try and control my shakes but if it's busy and I see him in the queue then I will start sweating, shaking, feel physically sick and have to leave the counter! It's absolute madness. It's getting so bad that I want to leave my job. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

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jacqui52 said on 01 December 2014

I AM A 53YR OLD FEMALE and today I thought I was having a heart attack I was going to the post office on leaving my home 5mins later I couldn't catch my breath gasping is the only way to describe it I had pain down my right side started sweating to the point of ringing wet. I slowed down my walking, but I wasn't walking fast as I have a collapsed right foot, it seemed to come right I got in to the store and because I couldn't catch my breath I began to fear the worst, I made my way back home by the time I got back i was really struggling to breath so i lay on my bed it seems to have lapsed but I lay on the bed for 3hrs would this be a panic attack I suffer from depression and take citalopram, I worry living alone do need to go see someone it put the fear of god in me, it is by far the most scary thing.

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sbxwr1005 said on 28 September 2014

I wake several times in the night and am instantly overwhelmed with feeling of terrible feat, horror, despair. Sometimes these feelings intrude into my sleep. It comes in the day too, but not so bad as at night. I have no particular real worries or troubles. How can I learn how to wake and feel jolly!

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EBULLIMORE1 said on 31 March 2014

I have been horse riding all my life. I had a bad accident last year where I bucked off on to my face. I had cuts and bruises and a concussion from it. I am trying to get back in to horse riding as I want to teach. I have a 30 mins lesson and each time I go for my lesson my heart is pounding, I get dry mouthed , shaky and I feel all bothered and tense.
What does this mean as I am getting really upset by it and am worried it might cause another accident.

Please can some one help

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love1234 said on 29 March 2014

over the past 3 years iv battled a reactive depression but I've now nearly overcome it apart from now i suffer from panic attacks which i didn't suffer with while i was depressed. i had a staff meeting in a small room filled with around 15 people where there was no windows and my manager was stood in the door way so i was closed in. i felt myself becoming dizzy, sick, my heart was racing, i felt heavy and i had to get up suddenly in front of everyone and walk out the room which was very embarrassing. i had to sit in the stair well with my head between my legs so that i could get some blood back to my head for around 10 minuets and then had to control my breathing so my heart rate would decrease. It was a terrifying experience as i have never had a panic attack before but from then on i have felt panic attacks coming on when i am in small spaces with lots of people such as buses, lifts, classrooms and cars with people i don't know that well, i have learnt to a extent how to control them but when i can feel a panic attack coming on, it is such a scary experience. However i don't know if there is any type of help available to help me increase my knowledge of how to deal with my panic attacks, does anyone have any tips?

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Melody77 said on 02 December 2013

I suffered from panic attacks in my teens after a split with my first boyfriend and it took awhile but eventually got over them. 15 years on and for no reason at all I found myself having a huge panic attack whilst eating dinner. I had tingling feeling throughout my body my arms and legs felt like they were weighted down and I felt like I was going to die I was freezing to touch and my whole skin tone was pastie. It really scared me. I then felt dizzy all the time from one day to the next and had been told I have a inner ear inflammation that effects my balance. This attack has sparked off several panic attacks I feel the attack rising from my feet to the back of my neck and and it happens at random times throughout the day. I always worry it is something more serious although know that it's a panic attack. I don't understand why it happens now as although I am busy with 3 children and my own business I have nothing to panic about other than the normal everyday worries. I hate these feelings and ride them through but find it exhausting. I will not take anti depressants as I don't feel depressed and have seen others have very bad experiences with this so try to deal with it myself and with gods help. Please how long will this last??

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cerys14 said on 20 November 2013

I think I experienced a panic attack today but I don't know. I was just walking along the pavement and i started getting really hot and then I started to have shortness of breath. I am not sure what this was but it was scary and does anyone know what this could be. I also had one whilst i was on holiday in a crowded place and i stepped outside and i felt like i wasn't quite with it that was also scary?! Any advice?

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