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What is a panic attack?

Panic attacks: Colin's story

Media last reviewed: 07/05/2013

Next review due: 07/05/2015

Panic symptoms in mind and body

A panic attack is a rush of intense psychological and physical symptoms. These symptoms of panic can be frightening and happen suddenly, often for no clear reason.

Panic attacks usually last between five and 20 minutes, and although it may feel as though you are in serious trouble, they aren't dangerous and shouldn't cause any physical harm. It is unlikely you will be admitted to hospital if you have a panic attack.

You may feel an overwhelming sense of fear and a sense of unreality, as if you’re detached from the world around you.

As well as psychological symptoms, you may also experience physical symptoms of panic, such as:

  • a sensation that your heart is beating irregularly (palpitations)
  • sweating 
  • trembling
  • shortness of breath
  • a choking sensation
  • chest pain 
  • feeling sick 

The physical symptoms of a panic attack are caused by your body going into "fight or flight" mode in response to something you think is a threat. As your body tries to take in more oxygen your breathing quickens. Your body also releases hormones, such as adrenaline, causing your heart to beat faster and your muscles to tense up.

Trying to slow your breathing may help in panic attacks

If you’re breathing quickly during a panic attack, slowing this down can ease your other symptoms. Here are some things you can try:

  • Breathe in deeply through your nose.
  • Breathe out slowly through your mouth. 
  • Focus your thinking on the word "calm".

Keep calm and concentrate on your breathing. You should start to feel better as the level of carbon dioxide in your blood returns to normal, although you may feel tired afterwards.

Should you see your doctor about panic attacks?

A panic attack can make you feel like you’re about to die but it's usually harmless once the symptoms pass. However, in some cases, you may need medical advice to rule out an underlying physical cause. 

Seek medical advice if:

  • Your panic attack continues after following these breathing techniques for 20 minutes.
  • You still feel unwell after your breathing returns to normal.
  • You still have a rapid or irregular heartbeat or chest pains after your panic attack. 
  • You regularly have panic attacks, as this could be a sign that you have panic disorder.

Avoiding panic attacks

The following practical suggestions may help prevent panic attacks:

Page last reviewed: 11/12/2013

Next review due: 11/12/2015

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