What is a panic attack?

Clinical Director for Mental Health at Bupa UK
07 October 2016

It’s Monday morning and you’re waiting for the bus. It arrives and you get on. The bus is busy and there’s nowhere to sit, so you make yourself comfortable standing. As the bus continues on its journey, it gets busier and busier. You don’t like crowds and begin to feel uncomfortable. Before you know it, your palms are sweaty and you feel light-headed. As time passes, you feel overwhelmed with panic and in a rush to get off the bus before you’ve reached your destination.  You panic – what is happening?

Boy laying on bed looking at ceiling

This scenario is just one example of what it might feel like to experience a panic attack. As Bupa UK’s Clinical Director for Mental Health, I’m going to look at what exactly a panic attack is. 

A panic attack is when you have an overwhelming rush of anxiety and physical symptoms including, for example, sweating, shaking, feeling short of breath and pain in your chest. During an attack, symptoms usually build up rapidly and then reach a peak where they are at their worst.

Other symptoms might include:

  • feeling dizzy or faint
  • trouble swallowing or feeling as if you are choking
  • feeling sick (nausea)
  • being fearful that you’re not in control or that you’re going to die
  • a tingling feeling or numbness in your fingers
  • having chills or hot flushes

You might also be more aware of your heart beat, and feel as though it’s pounding or beating quicker than usual.

Panic attacks don’t usually last longer than 20-30 minutes. They can happen spontaneously, or you may have one in response to an uncomfortable situation or something you fear. Because of this, you might begin to anxiously anticipate attacks or certain situations.

Your body naturally responds to fear. During a panic attack, this response is heightened. Although having a panic attack is distressing, it isn’t likely to cause any permanent harm. If you have one, it’s important to try and stay calm and remember that it will end. Self-help resources such as books based on CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) may help you to manage your symptoms.

If your attacks reoccur and you find yourself worrying about them or their effects, you may have panic disorder. For more information and help, speak to your doctor.

Other helpful websites and resources:

  • Moodjuice – panic self-help guide
  • Mind – anxiety and panic attacks

Pablo Vandenabeele
Clinical Director for Mental Health at Bupa UK

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