Panic attacks explained
Written by spunout
Fact checked by experts and reviewed by young people.
Panic describes an intense anxiety that you might feel as a reaction to something. Real panic involves intense fear and a horrible feeling of being on edge. There are usually lots of physical sensations too including that feeling of nerves in your stomach, sweaty palms, quick and shallow breathing and not being able to relax.
As if that was not enough, panic and anxiety brings with it a range of frightening thoughts. You might feel like you’re going to faint or collapse, that you’re going mad or even that you are dying.
Panic is an unpleasant experience but there is a reason for it. It is our in built response to danger, preparing us to run away or fight for our lives. But panic can also be the fear that grips us when there is nothing really to be afraid of. It’s like an early warning system gone wrong.
It’s normal to feel anxious or panicky sometimes, but it’s not good for you to feel anxious all the time, or to feel that anxiety is taking over your life.
What is a panic attack?
- A panic attack can start with a sudden and rising feeling of fear and distress. You panic and are frightened of losing control.
- Your breathing speeds up and you might feel as if you can’t breathe properly, causing you to gasp for even more air. The extra oxygen makes your heart beat faster.
- During the attack you might have a tight sensation in the chest, feel dizzy, faint, shaky, confused, sick or weepy. You can also suffer from chills, sweating, pins and needles and hyperventilation (when you feel as if you can’t breathe).
- Panic attacks can last from a few seconds to 10 minutes.
- Many people are frightened of dying or losing control during the attack.
What causes panic attacks?
There are a number of things that cause panic attacks. If you’re suffering from them you should see a doctor to talk about the cause and the best way to prevent them. Some of the triggers for panic attacks are too much stress and anxiety, phobias (when you’re very frightened of something), bad breathing habits and emotional worries.
How to stop panic attacks
- Visit your doctor to talk about ways to reduce stress in your life.
- Most people are very frightened when they have a panic attack – you may feel out of control or worry that you’re going to die. It is important to realise that panic attacks are not life threatening. Realising this can help you cope with panic attacks.
- When you feel panic building don’t try to escape the situation. Instead learn to face your fears. It’s important that you get used to the way you feel when you are panicking, try to ride it out and be confident that the panic will soon pass. This takes a bit of practice and will probably be extremely difficult at first, but keep trying until you get the hang of it.
- Some people find that it helps to use a mindful approach. This means acknowledging your thoughts and feelings, but not dwelling on them, but instead letting them go. You can find out more on mindfulness here
- Check out the Unwind section for useful tips on how to relax.
- When the symptoms of a panic attack start, breathe deeply and slowly. Breathe in slowly, count to three and breathe out slowly. Do this until you start to recover your calm. Try to think rationally and calm yourself down. Remember that panic attacks are not life threatening. Read more in our factsheet on deep breathing as a way to control anxiety and panic.
- If panic attacks continue, talk to your doctor about ways to manage them. A lot of people find that Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) really helps, so ask your GP for more information about it. You can read more about CBT here.
- Remember that you are not the only person to feel anxious or to have a panic attacks. Read more about SpunOutters who have panic attacks and the ways they cope with them.
I need more help
If you need a little extra help in overcoming your panic attack, these organisations can help:
- Jigsaw – a free counselling and mental health service for young people. You can find details on your local Jigsaw here.
- Samaritans – a free, confidential listening service. You can contact them on 116 123.
- Childline – a free, confidential listening services for people under 18. You can contact them on 1800 666 666.
- Traveller Counselling Service – a free counselling service for Travellers going through any sort of difficulty. You can contact them on 086 308 1476.
- See the help section for contacts details of support organisations.