Panic attacks – symptoms and treatment

profile picture of Naomi Humber
Head of Mental Wellbeing, Bupa Health Clinics
07 June 2022
Next review due June 2025

We all experience feelings of panic or fear from time to time. But panic attacks can be distressing. Up to 1 in 3 people have a panic attack at some point in their life. Here, I explain what a panic attack is, what the signs of a panic attack are, and how to deal with one.

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What is a panic attack?

A panic attack is a period of intense fear or overwhelming mental and physical feelings. Most panic attacks last between 5 and 20 minutes. You might have a panic attack just once, or repeatedly over time. If you have regular panic attacks that don’t have an obvious trigger, you may have panic disorder. This means you might worry about having other panic attacks and try to avoid situations that could cause them.

What are the symptoms of a panic attack?

The physical and mental symptoms of a panic attack can vary from person to person. For example, you may feel overwhelmed and unable to control how you’re feeling.

Some common signs of a panic attack include:

  • being short of breath or feeling that you’re choking
  • having a rapid heartbeat
  • feeling faint, lightheaded, or dizzy
  • trembling or shaking
  • feeling sick
  • feeling hot or cold
  • feeling numbness in your skin
  • feeling afraid that you’re going to die
  • chest pain

Although these symptoms might be worrying, they aren’t dangerous. They’re also unlikely to cause you any lasting physical harm.

What triggers panic attacks?

It’s not always obvious what causes a panic attack. They can be triggered by situations that cause anxiety. Or they can be caused by a major negative event in your life, such as the death of a loved one. For some people, panic attacks seem to have no trigger.

If you have anxiety or depression you might have panic attacks.

How do you stop or manage panic attacks?

There are a few things you can try to stop or manage panic attacks, when you feel one coming on.

  • Talk to someone about it. It might help to talk to a trusted friend or family member about your worries. You could also talk to your GP or a mental health professional. There are online forums, specialist charities, and support groups who might be able to help you too.
  • Live a healthy lifestyle. Exercise improves your mood and reduces anxiety. A healthy diet and a good night’s sleep could also help manage your anxiety, which might help you to prevent a panic attack happening.
  • Try breathing and relaxation techniques. If you’re feeling anxious, try to lower your stress levels and take time out to relax. Yoga, Tai chi, and mindfulness can help you to control your thoughts and feel calmer. Practising calming breathing exercises might also be helpful if you feel short of breath during a panic attack.
  • Try distraction techniques. These could help stop the negative thoughts that can lead to a panic attack. Try to focus on something neutral or pleasant to distract yourself until the feelings pass.
  • Identify triggers. If something specific triggers your panic attacks, try to keep a diary of these situations and feelings. This might also help you avoid them in future, and keep track of your progress.

How do you treat panic attacks?

If you regularly have panic attacks, your GP may recommend taking medicine for the anxiety that causes the attacks. This could involve taking antidepressants to improve your mood. Your GP may refer you for psychological therapy, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). This type of treatment can help you to control and reduce your panic attacks.

Where can you get help for panic attacks?

Don’t suffer in silence. There are also organisations that can give you advice or support. If you need help now you can:

  • call the Samaritans free and confidential helpline: 116 123 (UK and ROI)
  • or visit Mind’s website and click on the yellow ‘I need urgent help’ button on the page. This is a tool that is designed to help you understand what’s happening to you and how you can help yourself.

If you need immediate help or are worried about someone, call the emergency services.

If you’re worried about your mental health, our direct access service aims to provide you with the advice, support and treatment you need as quickly as possible. You’ll be able to get mental health advice and support usually without the need for a GP referral. Learn more today.

profile picture of Naomi Humber
Naomi Humber (she/her)
Head of Mental Wellbeing, Bupa Health Clinics

    • Anxiety and panic attacks. Mind., published February 2021
    • Panic disorders. BMJ Best Practice., last reviewed 27 April 2022
    • Panic attacks and panic disorder. MSD Manual., last reviewed April 2020
    • Generalised anxiety disorder and panic disorder in adults: Management. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE)., last updated 15 June 2020
    • Zheng S, Kim C, Lal S, et al. The effects of twelve weeks of tai chi practice on anxiety in stressed but healthy people compared to exercise and wait-list groups-a randomized controlled trial. J Clin Psychol 2018; 74(1):83-92. doi: 10.1002/jclp.22482
    • Hyperventilation. Patient., last edited 24 November 2021
    • Panic attacks. Mental Health Foundation., last updated 15 February 2022

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