What is a panic attack?

Many people suffer from panic attacks. A panic attack is caused by a natural fight reflex which gets triggered when the mind and body seem to cope with a dangerous situation. Stress hormones are released and we can react much faster. This reaction can be helpful when we face a threatening event, however, it can become highly unhelpful when it happens in situations that are not really dangerous and when there is no clear threat or reason for fear - especially if it happens very often. 


What does a panic attack feel like?

A panic attack is an explosion of anxiety and rises rapidly in a few minutes. We are sure that our heart will stop and we are going to die. We feel shaky and sometimes sick. Fear goes along with physical manifestations. Our heart pumps faster, more oxygen gets to our muscles and we breathe faster. After the panic attack, we feel weak and empty.

It is important to know that, although panic attacks feel awful, they are not dangerous and people don't die from them. But, people who experience them think they might.

People often describe their symptoms in different ways, such as:

  • "I had a panic attack last week and I was rooted to the spot. I couldn't move."
  • "I always dread that I may panic. I feel I can't get a breath and my throat gets tight. I think I am going to die."
  • "I sometimes get panic attacks in the shower. As soon as the water hits my face I feel I can't get enough air in my lungs and I get sick."
  • "I get these pins and needles in my fingers and arms and, if it is a bad panic attack, around my mouth too."
  • "My panic seems to start for no apparent reason. My head spins and I am soaked in sweat. That scares the hell out of me."

An occasional panic attack may be a kind of health warning for us to think about our lifestyles and the way we cope with problems and worries. But, when panic attacks occur on a regular basis, they can be qualified as disorders and we need to start thinking about treatments that could help us.

Panic attacks usually start with thoughts that something horrible and dangerous is happening to us or our loved ones. We fear we will go mad or lose control. The fact that there is no real threat doesn't make our feelings less scary. Panic can occur by itself because of a certain phobia (fear of shops, people, new situations, heights etc.), as a part of being depressed and anxious, as a result of sleep disturbance or as a result of drinking or using drugs.

A panic attack can also be triggered by a thought or memory of something. It can even occur spontaneously and we might never know why it started. Panic attacks can be a reaction to difficulties we face in our lives or in our relationships. It could be pressure from our jobs or reaction to bullying or mobbing. If we experience a major loss or go through divorce or separation, we can feel vulnerable to a panic attack. 

Panic attack symptoms are similar to those experienced with anxiety but are much stronger. When we are anxious or depressed, the triggers for panic attacks can be relatively minor and sometimes bizarre, like going to the mall or even just leaving the house.

What are the signs of a panic attack?

Common signs of a panic attack are different but most people who suffer from them describe having similar symptoms such as:

  • hyperventilation, which makes the chest feel tight and makes us feel lightheaded and distanced and cut off from things
  • a numbness or tingling in the fingertips or tips of the toes and around the mouth and nose
  • sweating a lot
  • breathing deeply or not being able to breathe at all
  • feeling sick
  • feeling detached (I am here but I am not here)
  • feeling an urge to go to the toilet

How to cope with panic attacks

There are various ways that can help us cope with a panic attack or try to avoid the triggers. 

Relaxation and breathing techniques are both very important tools. We can learn ways how to relax all the muscle groups in our body through breathing. By releasing tense muscles, we may clear and calm the mind. This might lower the anxiety level and stop the adrenaline from rising to a peak of panic.

Experts recommend practising muscle relaxation and breathing daily because it will not work if it is done just when the need is felt. It takes time for the body to become sensitised and it will take more time to lower the level of anxiety.

Some people try to avoid any kind of pressure or exertion on their bodies, fearing that such exertion will increase their heart rate and they will not be able to cope. Some of these avoidances could be extreme and are not recommendable. Some people may find it useful to carry around items they perceive as helping them, like a bottle of water, a talisman, a mobile phone, etc.

It is important to know that with the right information and the right support you can overcome the panic. But when panic attacks severely interfere with someone's life, it might be important to start seeking professional help.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Edinburgh EH1 & Haddington EH41
Written by Maja Tomse, (B.Sc.Psychology, M.A.Counsell/Psych, Cert Couple Counsell)
Edinburgh EH1 & Haddington EH41

Maja Tomse is an accredited psychologist and individual and couples psychotherapist with over 10 years experience of working with people in a variety of settings. She has worked and trained in four different countries which has given her a wealth of insights which she integrates into her work with international clientele.


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