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What are Panic Attacks?

A panic attack is an explosion of high anxiety (that you are unable to control) and is associated with a sense of losing control. Anxiety can be triggered mostly by fear but it can also be a thought or a memory. They can also happen when you are sleeping and you may never know why.

What Causes Panic Attacks?

Many people may never find out why they have started having panic attacks. However it's thought that panic attacks are probably caused by a combination of physical and psychological factors. Some of these factors are:

  • genetics, having a close family member with a panic disorder is thought to increase your risk of developing panic attacks

  • traumatic life experiences

  • money worries

  • heavy drinking

  • relationships

The Symptoms

Symptoms of a panic attack tend to occur very suddenly, often without warning and they can be very frightening and distressing. As well as overwhelming feelings of anxiety, panic attacks can cause other symptoms which include:

  • thumping heart beat

  • shaking

  • tingling

  • dizziness

  • chest pain

  • intense fear

  • cold feet and hands

  • sweating

  • choking sensation

  • shortness of breath

  • nausea

  • a need to go to the toilet

  • a fear of dying

Panic attacks can be so severe people start to fear the next attack, which creates a cycle of living in 'fear of fear' and adds to the sense of panic.

Most panic attacks last for five to 20 minutes although some attacks have been reported to have lasted up to an hour. However, it's likely that in these cases one attack occurred straight after another or high levels of anxiety were felt after the first attack.

Self Help

There are several things you can do to help yourself treat the symptoms of your panic attacks. Here are some things you could try:

  • if possible, during an attack, stay where you are as you don't know how long the attack is going to last

  • focus: remind yourself that the panic attack will eventually pass and focus on something positive as it will take your mind off it

  • breathing techniques (your GP can help you with these)

  • challenge your fear

  • don't fight the panic, as this can increase your anxiety and make the panic attack worse

  • relaxation is very good to reduce tension and complementary therapies such as massage or reflexology are a good way to help relax

  • start exercising regularly, particularly aerobics as it reduces stress and releases tension

Treatment

When you need professional help, the first place to go to is the GP as they may give you some medication such as anti depressants called SSRI (Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors) if your anxiety is severely interfering with your life.  They can also refer you on to the right professional that can help you.

If you are a child or young person you could be referred to CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service) as they can offer a range of services including psychiatrists, psychologists, support workers and nurses.

Recovery

Confronting and overcoming the symptoms of panic attacks isn't easy andyou will have to be very patient and have courage. There will be a few setbacks along the way but don't be discouraged, you have to push through the setbacks and get back on track.

With patience and practise you will eventually start to feel more confident about facing your fears. With the right help and support you can overcome panic attacks.

NHS Choices - Understanding Panic Attacks