Anxiety and panic attacks

Explains anxiety and panic attacks, including possible causes and how you can access treatment and support. Includes tips for helping yourself, and guidance for friends and family.

Your stories

Managing anxiety with creativity

Damien blogs for us about using creativity to manage his anxiety.

Posted on 04/03/2014

Sleeping with anxiety

Annie blogs about not being able to switch off and sleep, and how she copes with anxiety.

Posted on 18/04/2013

Talking about anxiety at university

Emmie blogs about her experiences of managing relationships and anxiety whilst at university.

Emma Togneri
Posted on 24/09/2014

What is a panic attack?

A panic attack is an exaggeration of your body’s normal response to fear, stress or excitement. It is the rapid build-up of overwhelming physical sensations, such as:

  • a pounding heartbeat
  • feeling faint
  • sweating
  • nausea (feeling sick)
  • chest pains
  • feeling unable to breathe
  • shaky limbs, or feeling like your legs are turning to jelly
  • feeling like you’re not connected to your body

I could feel all these physical symptoms building inside me, literally filling every part of my body until I felt completely light-headed and disembodied.

During a panic attack you might feel very afraid that:

  • you’re losing control
  • you’re going to faint
  • you’re having a heart attack
  • you’re going to die

My teeth would chatter uncontrollably and my whole body [would] tremble, I’d hyperventilate and cry with panic as the feeling that I was going to fall unconscious was so convincing.

When do panic attacks happen?

It’s different for different people. You might have a good understanding about likely situations or places that can trigger an attack for you, or you might feel that your attacks come without warning and happen at random. 

I felt like I couldn't breathe, I just wanted to get out, to go somewhere else, but I couldn't because I was on a train.

Night time panic attacks

Panic attacks can also come in the night while you’re asleep, and wake you up. This can happen if your brain is very alert (due to anxiety), and interprets small changes in your body as a sign of danger.

Experiencing a panic attack during the night can be particularly frightening, as you may feel confused about what’s happening, and are helpless to do anything to spot it coming.

I can’t sleep due to panic attacks and nightmares. When I fall asleep within an hour I am up, soaked, heart racing and shaking.

How long do panic attacks last?

Most panic attacks last for between 5 and 20 minutes. They can come on very quickly, and your symptoms will usually peak within 10 minutes.

Sometimes you might experience symptoms of a panic attack which last for up to an hour. If this happens you are probably experiencing one attack after another, or a high level of anxiety after the initial panic attack.

How often might I have panic attacks?

Again, it’s different for different people. You might have one panic attack and never experience another, or you might have attacks once a month or even several times each week.

What can I do about panic attacks?

Having a panic attack can be truly terrifying experience, but there are things you can do.  

Talking about panic attacks

Wondering how others experience panic attacks? Polly, Lewis, Faisal, Brian and Shelley share how it feels for them and what helps over a cup of tea.

This information was published in February 2015. We will revise it in 2018.

Mental Health A-Z

Information and advice on a huge range of mental health topics

> Read our A-Z


Helping you to better understand and support people with mental health problems

> Find out more

Special offers

Check out our promotional offers on print and digital booklets, for a limited time only

> Visit our shop today