Panic attacks

Do you…

  • Sometimes feel an unexpected rush of intense and overwhelming fear or apprehension?
  • Experience bodily sensations such as your heart racing or beating irregularly, breathlessness, nausea, trembling or sweating?
  • Have frightening thoughts that you might have a heart attack, go mad or collapse/ faint?
  • Feel anxious in situations where you have experienced this sense of panic before?
  • Feel apprehensive when approaching these situations, or avoid them completely?

What is a Panic Attack?

Everyone experiences fear or anxiety from time to time and this is usually accompanied by physical sensations (such as heart racing and sweating). A panic attack is a bit like “normal” fear but different in a number of ways:

  • The feelings are sudden and unexpected so they seem to come “out of the blue”
  • The feelings are a lot stronger and so feel very frightening

In a panic attack the person experiences a surge in physical sensations, including but not limited to:

  • irregularities in heartbeats (e.g. heart racing, skipping a beat or pounding)
  • dizziness, hot flushes, changes in breathing (e.g. shortness of breath or breathing fast)
  • head pounding
  • numbness or tingling in various body areas
  • feeling sick or experiencing choking sensations
  • faintness or wobbly legs
  • feeling out of control
  • feeling detached and unreal, like being in a day dream

People often have frightening thoughts and think something awful is happening to them when they experience a panic attack. However it important to remember that panic is not dangerous or harmful. A panic attack will not cause you any physical harm and it is unlikely that you will be admitted to hospital if you have a panic attack.

Although panic attacks initially come on “out of the blue” they may later become triggered by situations where the person has previously experienced a panic attack. This can cause panic to affect the way people behave, so people might try to avoid or escape panic. This avoidance can sometimes become severe and agoraphobia (panic disorder with agoraphobia) occurs as a consequence; this is when people fear and avoid situations that might cause them to panic (e.g. being alone, being in situations where escape might be difficult or leaving home).

How common is it?

Panic attacks can occur in almost all anxiety disorders and also occur in other psychological problems such as depression. In the UK, approximately 1% of people experience panic disorder. An occasional panic attack occurs in almost everyone in the population.

What can I do about it?

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence has recommended two main treatments for panic; these are psychological therapy (Guided Self Help or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) and medication. Depending on your circumstances, you may benefit from one of these types of treatment or a combination of the two.

  • Guided Self Help where a Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner will guide you through a self-help booklet on panic
  • Individual CBT for panic attacks specifically involves identifying your thoughts and actions, and with the help of your therapist, considering alternatives. Treatment can be offered in one-to-one sessions or in a group.

If you would like to know more about Guided Self Help or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, you can refer yourself to our service. Alternatively, you may wish to speak to your GP about a referral to our service.

How can I help myself?

If you would like to read more about how you can help yourself please click here.

If you have panic attacks, there are many ways that you can ease the physical symptoms of anxiety yourself as panic attacks often start during periods of stress. Some techniques can help you to deal with stressful situations better and reduce overall levels of anxiety. Useful self help strategies for managing anxiety include:

Exercise: regular exercise, particularly aerobic exercise, will help you combat stress and release tension. It also encourages your brain to release the chemical serotonin, which can improve your mood. Aim to do a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week. Moderate exercise should make you feel slightly out of breath and tired. Going for a brisk walk is a good example.

Relaxation: as well as getting regular exercise, learning how to relax is important. You may find relaxation and breathing exercises helpful, or you may prefer activities such as yoga or pilates to help you unwind.

Diet: changing your diet may help ease your symptoms. Too much caffeine can make you more anxious than normal. This is because caffeine can disrupt your sleep and also speed up your heartbeat. If you are tired, you are less likely to be able to manage your anxious symptoms.

Smoking and drinking: cigarettes and alcohol have been shown to make feelings of anxiety worse. Drink alcohol in moderation and, if you smoke, try to give up. The NHS and your GP provide free support to people who would like to stop smoking.

Support groups for anxiety: these are also a good way to meet other people with similar experiences. Support groups often involve face-to-face meetings where you can talk about your difficulties and problems with other people. Many support groups also provide support and guidance over the phone or in writing. Ask your GP about local support groups for anxiety or search online.

Understanding your panic: some people find that reading about panic attacks can help. There are many books based on the principles of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). These books can help you understand more about your psychological problems and learn ways of overcoming them by changing your thinking and behaviour. To find out more about recommended books click here.