Panic attacks and how you can manage them

Medical Director at Bupa UK
25 April 2016
Anxious woman

In the UK, about one in four of us will experience a mental health problem each year. One of the most common of these is anxiety, and for some people, feelings of anxiety can be associated with panic attacks.

A small level of worry, stress or anxiety can be normal in day-to-day life. But if these feelings grow to such an extent that they begin to take over, they could have a negative effect on your mental wellbeing.

What exactly is a panic attack?

A panic attack is a period of severe fear and overwhelming physical feelings. It can last between five and 30 minutes, and often peaks around 10 minutes, although this will vary between individuals. During the attack, the body responds by releasing a hormone called adrenaline, which prepares you for danger.

Experiencing a panic attack, whether it’s your own or witnessing someone else having one, can be a very distressing situation. For some people, the onset of a panic attack can be quite sudden and unexpected, while others may sense one coming on. They may occur as a one-off event, or a number of times throughout someone’s life.

The symptoms of a panic attack

The sensations which occur during a panic attack will vary from person to person and can be both physical and mental. You may feel overwhelmed and unable to control them. Some of the most common symptoms include:

  • being short of breath
  • a rapid heartbeat
  • feeling faint, lightheaded or dizzy
  • trembling or shaking
  • nausea (feeling sick)
  • feeling hot or cold
  • tingling fingers

You might experience symptoms other than the ones listed here. These symptoms can sometimes be so intense that people often think they are having a heart attack. It’s important to remember that although the attack is unnerving, it’s not likely to cause any permanent harm.

Managing anxiety and panic attacks

Learning to manage the anxiety which causes a panic attack may help you to prevent an attack from occurring. The following steps may help you to do this.

Talking about it

Simply talking to a friend or family member and voicing worries and concerns could help. But if you’re not comfortable sharing your thoughts with someone close, there are lots of other people ready to listen and help. This could be talking to a counselor, therapist, an online forum, specialist charity or joining a support group.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a type of talking therapy where you focus on the way you think and behave. You learn to challenge negative emotions and develop coping strategies for these. It can be done face-to-face with a professional, through online courses, self-help books or even podcasts, and has been shown to be useful in helping some people deal with anxiety and panic attacks.

Living a healthy lifestyle

Exercise triggers the release of ‘happy’ hormones known as endorphins, which have been shown to improve mood and reduce anxiety. Other aspects of a healthy lifestyle which may help reduce anxiety include:

  • eating a healthy diet
  • avoiding stimulants such as caffeine, alcohol and nicotine
  • getting a good night’s sleep

Breathing and relaxation techniques

For someone feeling anxious, it’s important to keep stress to a minimum and take time out for yourself. Activities such as yoga, tai chi, meditation, mindfulness and deep breathing may help to relax the mind and body. This in turn can reduce stress and anxiety, which could prevent the occurrence of a panic attack.

Hyperventilating (breathing shallow and quickly) is common during a panic attack. You can try and manage this through the use of deep breathing techniques, which can be learned through these practices.

Identifying triggers

Keeping a diary of the situations and feelings that may trigger a panic attack can help to identify risks which you can then avoid. It could also be useful to take note of any times when you successfully avoided an attack and the steps you took to do this. Not only does this mean you might be able to try the same technique in the future, but its important to make note of the positive side and acknowledge how well you’ve done.

Everyone experiences anxiety and panic attacks differently. Taking steps to reduce the underlying anxiety could help you to manage an attack. Remember that you’re not alone, and if you’re struggling or worried about your mental health, or if your panic attacks are reoccurring, please seek help or speak to your GP.

Even healthy people become unwell sometimes. Health insurance can help you get prompt access to the treatment and support you need to help you get back on the road to recovery. Learn more with our useful guide to understanding health insurance.

Steve Iley
Medical Director at Bupa UK

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