What is a panic attack – and where do I go for help?

Panic attacks can be very scary and unexpected. Once you understand what’s happening and why, you’ll be better equipped to manage a panic attack if it strikes again.

Often described as a sudden rush of intense anxiety or fear accompanied by frightening physical sensations and thoughts, panic attacks often strike without warning and cause a great deal of distress. They are far from uncommon. Beyond Blue reports up to 40 per cent of the population will experience a panic attack at some time. The good news is, while an attack may have you believing otherwise, they are very treatable!

Signs and symptoms

Much as the name suggests, panic attacks involve a sudden feeling of panic and fear, often alongside physical sensations. As well as feeling out of control, Beyond Blue notes sufferers may experience:

  • breathlessness or feeling like you are choking
  • chest pains.
  • dizziness or fainting
  • hot or cold flushes
  • nausea
  • numbness or tingling, especially in the hands and feet
  • passing out
  • pounding heart
  • shaking
  • sweating

Two of the scarier sensations associated with panic attacks are feeling disconnected from the world around you and derealisation – thinking the world is not real. Both these thoughts pass with the panic attack but may create ongoing worry.

If you continue to experience panic attacks, this can cause you to fear future attacks, making you worry about how or when the next one will happen – this is called a panic disorder. At this stage, it’s not uncommon to start avoiding certain activities or places in case they bring on a panic attack.

Causes of panic attacks

While there are no definitive causes of panic attacks or panic disorder, they are believed to be linked to a combination of genetic predisposition; chronic, persistent stress; physical illnesses; or having a heightened sensitivity to anxiety related bodily sensations. For example, while one person may not pay much attention or be especially concerned by a racing heart, dizziness or chest pain, another may focus on it and start to hyperventilate or panic, exacerbating the problem.  For some people, the cause may be more specific, such as a reaction to a traumatic event.

What can you do if you experience an attack?

As you can imagine, panic attacks are impossible to simply ignore. It’s best to acknowledge how you are feeling and remind yourself it is a panic attack and it will pass. There is no rush to ‘get over it’ and the harder you try not to think about the elephant in the room (your feelings of panic), the more you will focus on it!

Likewise, fleeing the ‘scene’ of your attack can reinforce the message that the panic is unbearable. Instead, it’s best to wait it out – symptoms usually peak around 10 minutes and last around 30 minutes.

Breathing techniques can help. Try slowly counting and breathing, ten slow breaths in, ten out, the exhale being more important. Breathing into a paper bag can help to stop you hyperventilating.

You could also try reconnecting yourself to your environment, listen for five sounds you can hear, four smells you can smell, three things you can see, two things you can taste and one thing you can touch, paying attention to how it feels.  Along a similar vein, try recalling all the character names in your favourite show, or pick out every item you can see that’s pink or green, essentially redirecting your focus.

Some people have success with challenging their thought process, reminding themselves that it has happened before and it did pass and nothing went wrong. Positive self-talk can also help to dial-down your sense of panic.

In the longer term, it’s important to note if you are starting to avoid places and activities for fear of having a panic attack.  This may be a common coping mechanism, but it’s unhelpful and may ironically worsen the issue. If you find you’re having trouble coping, talk to your GP about getting help – panic and anxiety are highly treatable. The doctor can rule out common medical causes for your symptoms, suggest treatment options and if necessary, refer you to a psychologist or other mental health professional.

Where to go for help

Your GP is your best port of call, however, there are a range of services available in Australia to help.

  • beyondblue (anyone feeling depressed or anxious) – call 1300 22 4636 or chat online.
  • Black Dog Institute (for people affected by depression and extreme mood swings) – online help.
  • Lifeline (anyone experiencing a crisis or thinking about suicide) – call 13 11 14 or chat online.