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What is a panic attack?

A panic attack is when an intense fear or sense of panic comes over you and it causes a range of different symptoms. It can be very scary and happen suddenly, even for no particular reason. Although very distressing, you’re in no immediate danger when suffering an attack. They usually last from five to 20 minutes before the symptoms ease.  

It’s normal to feel panicked every so often. You might fear that you’ve lost something, or forgotten something, and this is completely normal. It's your body’s natural response to an alarming situation.

But when this feeling becomes particularly intense, occurs frequently or is accompanied by psychological and physical symptoms - this could be a sign of a panic disorder.

Often, it’s a vicious circle - the fear of a situation, or even having a panic attack can cause you to have another one. How often you have one and how severe they are will vary from person to person - it could be a couple of times a year, to a couple of times a week.

The condition often starts when you’re a teenager, but they can affect you at any age.

What are the symptoms of a panic attack?

Psychological symptoms of panic
  • Feeling worried, nervous, apprehensive or uneasy
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Bad mood
  • A sense of dread, panic or danger
  • Tiredness because of difficulty sleeping
  • Being more alert than normal
  • Feeling tearful or upset
Physical symptoms of panic

Before or during an anxiety attack, you may notice:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Low sex drive
  • Insomnia
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Sweating
  • Dry mouth
  • Fast or irregular heartbeat
  • Chest pain, a tight throat or trouble breathing
  • Stomach or digestive problems, such as your stomach churning
  • Nausea

What to do when you’re having a panic attack?

When an attack happens, it’s recommended that you focus as much as possible on your breathing technique, which can help to calm you down.

Our doctors can help you practise these techniques and build a coping strategy that’s unique to you. You can then use this whenever you feel a panic attack may be about to happen.

You usually don’t need to go to hospital after an attack, but it is a good idea to see a doctor to help diagnose the underlying cause if you haven’t done so already.  

You can read more about how to deal with a panic attack here.

What causes panic attacks?

While the exact causes of panic disorders aren’t yet known, it’s clear that their onset is usually brought about by a psychological or physical stress.

Panic disorders can occur in isolation, or take place because of other issues, such as phobias, a traumatic life event or having a pre-existing anxiety disorder.

They are also more likely if you have a parent or sibling with anxiety or a panic disorder. It may also be down to a chemical imbalance in your brain.

The fear of having a panic attack can add to these worries, leading to other problems - like worrying about going out in public in case another attack occurs.

Health conditions that can cause panic

Your panic attacks could also be because of an underlying health condition that needs to be treated. In fact, in some cases, this can be the first sign of an undiagnosed illness.

It’s also common to experience anxiety alongside other mental health conditions, including depression. If our doctors suspect this is the case, they can recommend the right course of treatment, or refer you to see a specialist if they think that you need more specific help.

Medical conditions that can cause anxiety include:

  • Heart disease
  • Thyroid problems
  • Diabetes
  • Respiratory disorders, like COPD or asthma
  • Drug/alcohol  abuse or withdrawal
  • Chronic pain or IBS
  • In very rare cases, tumors

Some medications can also also be the cause of your anxiety. Speak to a doctor if you think this may be the case.

How are panic attacks diagnosed?

When you see a GP, they’ll ask you about your symptoms and whether you have noticed that certain situations trigger an attack. They’ll also ask about your general health, mental health and how long you have been experiencing the symptoms.

The doctor may refer you for further testing, to rule out other conditions, such as problems with your heart rhythm. They may also refer you to a psychologist or another mental health expert, who can investigate the condition with you further, and help you manage it day-to-day.

What’s the treatment for panic attacks?

Treatment can include talking therapies, medication or a combination of both.

Talking therapies

You may find that simply talking about your panic with a doctor can help. Once you figure out the cause of it, you can start taking control of it.

There are also self-help groups you can attend if you feel comfortable enough to, or our doctors can refer you to a specialist to get the help you need.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)

If, after speaking to you about your symptoms, your doctor thinks CBT could help you deal with your diagnosis, they may refer you for treatment.

CBT is designed to help you develop a way to manage your symptoms when they occur. They’ll show you how to retrain your brain into behaving differently to keep your symptoms under control.

Counselling is another talking therapy the doctor may refer you to. It will depend on your personal situation - the treatment will be designed around you.

Medication for panic disorders

Our doctors can prescribe medication designed to help reduce your anxiety. This could be antidepressants,  beta blockers, or something else. They’ll use the information you give them to prescribe the right tablets and dose.

The cause of your symptoms will also impact their decision . As an example, if your anxiety is thought to be caused by a chemical imbalance in your brain, they may prescribe medication to correct this.

If you’re worried that your panic attacks are getting too much for you to manage, it’s really important that you speak to a doctor and get the help that you need. Our doctors can listen to your situation and offer you tailored advice and a treatment plan so that you can start to feel better.

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