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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.

This page is also available in Welsh.

What is a panic attack?

Panic attacks are a type of fear response. They're an exaggeration of your body's normal response to danger, stress or excitement. This page covers:

"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."

What do panic attacks feel like?

During a panic attack, physical symptoms can build up very quickly. These can include:

  • a pounding or racing heartbeat
  • feeling faint, dizzy or light-headed
  • feeling very hot or very cold
  • sweating, trembling or shaking
  • nausea (feeling sick)
  • pain in your chest or abdomen
  • struggling to breathe or feeling like you're choking
  • feeling like your legs are shaky or are turning to jelly
  • feeling disconnected from your mind, body or surroundings, which are types of dissociation.

During a panic attack you might feel very afraid that you're:

  • losing control
  • going to faint
  • having a heart attack
  • going to die.
Abby

Panic attacks – I turned my mental health crisis into a mental health triumph

"Although it's taken me a long time I have learned I am a strong person who has the potential to help others."

You might find that you become scared of going out alone or to public places because you're worried about having another panic attack. If this fear becomes very intense, it may be called agoraphobia. See our pages on types of phobia for more information.

"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."

Panic attacks

Watch Lewis, Polly, Faisal, Shelley and Brian share how panic attacks feel for them, and talk about what helps:

When might I have panic attacks?

Panic attacks happen at different times for everyone. Some people have one panic attack then don't ever experience another, or you might find that you have them regularly, or several in a short space of time. You might notice that particular places, situations or activities seem to trigger panic attacks. For example, they might happen before a stressful appointment.

Most panic attacks last between 5 to 20 minutes. They can come on very quickly. Your symptoms will usually be at their worst within 10 minutes. You might also experience symptoms of a panic attack over a longer period of time. This could be because you're having a second panic attack, or you're experiencing other symptoms of anxiety.

"My panic attacks seem to come out of the blue now. But in fact, they seem to be triggered mainly at night when I want to go to sleep but cannot stop my mind racing, experiencing worry and panic about anything that may be on my mind."

What helps to manage panic attacks?

Panic attacks can be frightening, but there are things you can do to help yourself cope. It could help to print off these tips, or write them down, and keep them somewhere easy to find.

During a panic attack:

  • Focus on your breathing. It can help to concentrate on breathing slowly in and out while counting to five.
  • Stamp on the spot. Some people find this helps control their breathing.
  • Focus on your senses. For example, taste mint-flavoured sweets or gum, or touch or cuddle something soft.
  • Try grounding techniques. Grounding techniques can help you feel more in control. They're especially useful if you experience dissociation during panic attacks. See our page on self-care for dissociation for more information on grounding techniques.

After a panic attack:

  • Think about self-care. It's important to pay attention to what your body needs after you've had a panic attack. For example, you might need to rest somewhere quietly, or eat or drink something.
  • Tell someone you trust. If you feel able to, it could help to let someone know you've had a panic attack. It could be particularly helpful to mention how they might notice if you're having another one, and how you'd like them to help you.

See our pages on self-care for anxiety and treatments for anxiety for more information on what could help.

Coping with panic attacks

"I began to avoid assemblies, going to class and going out with friends."

What is panic disorder?

If you're having lots of panic attacks at unpredictable times and there doesn't seem to be a particular trigger or cause, you might be given a diagnosis of panic disorder. It's common to experience panic disorder and certain types of phobia together. People who experience panic disorder may have some periods with few or no panic attacks, but have lots at other times.

Panic disorder and high sensitivity

Some research suggests that people who have panic disorder might be very sensitive to sensory experiences (such as sunlight, smells and changes in the weather), but there's not enough evidence yet to say for sure.

Also it's not clear whether having a high level of sensitivity to these sorts of things is something that might cause you to develop panic disorder, or whether it may be an effect of having it.

"Never knowing when I was going to have a panic attack was the worst feeling in the world."

This information was published in February 2021. We will revise it in 2024.

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