Panic Attacks

panic attack - girl chewing her nails

Panic Attacks

Written By Dr Brett Kennedy

What this Web Series is for…

This web series tries to help you to understand panic attacks. It gives information about what happens to you and your body in a panic and it tells you why these changes happen. There is also advice to help you to deal with your panic attacks, using simple coping strategies. The ideas in this booklet come from a form of psychological treatment known as cognitive‐behavioural therapy. Many of you will be waiting for, or already engaged in, some form of psychological treatment, but the booklet may also be useful if you are coping alone.

One word of caution: some people find that reading about things which worry them may make them start to feel anxious. As you will find out later on, this is understandable in terms of the model we are proposing. In the meantime, if this should happen to you whilst reading this web series, leave that section for a while and come back to it at another time.

Remember to come back to this page as new sections will appear each month until the web series is completed.

What is a panic attack?

A panic attack has three important features:

  • It is accompanied by intense fear and anxiety
  • It usually comes on fairly suddenly
  • The most intense feelings last a relatively brief time (although it may seem like a very long time when you are in the middle of an attack, and it may leave you feeling uncomfortable for sometime after the peak has passed.)

Panic is usually accompanied by a sense that something awful is about to happen. You may think that you will die,or go mad,or make a complete fool of yourself, or something else…….there are as many different fears as there are people who panic. Panic often comes ‘out of the blue’ ‐ in other words, the panic attack is completely unexpected and does not appear to be triggered by anything. Other times, people can recognise particular situations which are likely to trigger an attack.

Panic attacks are very common and they are not a sign of serious mental illness. We know that as many as one in ten of the general public may have at least one panic attack in their life. Many people have panics for a while, but then the panics go away. For others, they may cause problems for a long time. Unfortunately, perhaps because of the prejudices about psychological problems which still exist, many people wait years before they tell anyone or seek professional help, and some people never seek help at all.

The symptoms of panic

Panic affects your body, your thoughts and your actions. Below we describe some of the most common symptoms:

Your body: During an attack, people usually have very unpleasant bodily sensations. You will probably have noticed certain sensations in your own attacks. Some of the common ones are:

  • Your heart beating very fast, skipping beats or having ‘palpitations’
  • Breathing very fast(sometimes called over breathing or hyperventilation)
  • Feeling short of breath, as if you cannot get enough air
  • Chest pains, headaches, or pains in other places
  • Tightness in the throat, choking sensations
  • Feeling as if you have to go to the toilet
  • Feeling sick
  • Feeling faint, dizzy or unsteady on your feet
  • Numbness or tingling, especially in the fingers, toes or lips
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Sweating or hot flushes
  • Feelings of unreality, as if you are not really there, or as if you are separated from everything around you

These are the commonest sensations, but remember that one of the confusing things about panic is that it can cause a very wide range of sensations. Even though your own symptoms may not be on this particular list, you still may be having panic attacks.

Your thoughts: During a panic attack, people tend to think that something dreadful is going to happen. As we have said, people may have many different fears, but these are some of the most common ones:

  • I am going to have a heart attack
  • I will collapse or faint
  • I will not be able to breathe, I will suffocate
  • I will lose control of my bladder and / or bowels
  • I will choke
  • I will be sick
  • I am going to lose all control, go ‘crazy’, get taken to a mental hospital
  • I am going to make a complete fool of myself in front of everyone

We should make it clear that your fears are not actually going to come true. Many people have panicked and felt awful dozens or even hundreds of times, but they are still alive and well. Nevertheless, at the time that the panic is happening these thoughts may seem very real, and of course very frightening.

Your actions or behaviour: When something as frightening as a panic happens, you will obviously tend to do something to try to prevent the harm that seems to threaten you. These are some of the ways people commonly behave when they panic:

  • Most commonly, people feel that they will be safer if they leave the situation they are in, so they try to escape as soon as possible to what seems a safer For many, this means going home or finding someone with whom they feel safe
  • They may also try to avoid similar situations in future
  • They may take some specific action to make themselves feel safer: e.g. if they fear a heart attack, they may rest; if they feel they may collapse, they may hold on to something; if they fear suffocation, they may open a window to let in more air, and so
  • Sometimes people feel so sure that they are in danger that they call an ambulance or go to a doctor.


  • Panic is a sudden feeling of intense fear.
  • It has strong bodily symptoms such as a pounding heart, difficulty breathing and sweating.
  • Panic attacks are associated with thoughts that something terrible is going to happen.
  • People often want to get out of the situation as quickly as possible, or do something else to make themselves feel safe.

Next month we will examine- What is the purpose of fear?