What Is a Panic Attack?

Have you ever felt like you can no longer breathe? The air is being sucked out of your lungs, your heart is pounding, you’re uncontrollably sweating, and the world feels like it is crashing down around you? It can be frightening to experience sudden panic attacks. But, you are not alone; most panic attacks mirror this experience.

People who come from all walks of life can have panic attacks. Unexpected panic attacks and anxiety disorders can make it difficult to navigate our everyday lives. However, anxiety disorders are treatable, and with the proper support, you are able to control your panic disorder. This blog will explore panic disorder symptoms, panic attacks, and the treatment options available.

Panic Attack Symptoms

Everyone is different and so may have slightly different panic attack symptoms. Some of the physical symptoms experienced include:

  • Palpitations

  • Sweating

  • Feeling dizzy

  • Abdominal distress

  • Racing heartbeat

  • Shortness of breath

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Shivering

  • Feeling numb

  • Pins and needles

  • Feeling hot

  • A choking feeling

  • Trembling

    When someone has experienced these typical symptoms of panic disorder for the first time, they may think that they are having a heart attack as they experience intense chest pain.

Other symptoms are perhaps better described as psychological and include:

  • intense fear

  • extreme anxiety

  • overwhelming fear

  • impending doom

  • a feeling of losing control

Despite these real and genuine physical and psychological experiences, it may be reassuring for people to know that a panic attack does not cause physical harm and is not life-threatening.

What Happens During a Panic Attack?

It is important to recognize that everyone is different. Evidence suggests panic attacks can last for as little as a couple of seconds, though sometimes they can last for hours. Panic attacks typically continue for around 30 minutes. The symptoms will usually feel most intense within ten minutes of the start of a panic attack and then slowly ease.

Some people describe a panic attack as feeling very detached from their body and their immediate surroundings. They feel that they are outside of their body and observing what is happening. They have described the experience as very surreal. People say that a panic attack is a very frightening and distressful experience.

After a panic attack (that is after the symptoms of a panic attack have stopped), people can feel very disorientated, confused, frightened and tearful.

What Causes Panic Attacks?

A panic attack can occur at any time, and sometimes, they can be totally unexpected. This is why some people with panic disorder describe their life as living in constant fear of another panic attack.

The person who is having a panic attack sometimes cannot understand or explain why they had a panic attack, and it is impossible to guess when the next panic attack will occur. This is because there is not always a simple explanation or cause for panic attacks and panic disorder.

What Are the Risk Factors for Panic Attacks?

Panic attacks can happen out of the blue but there are some things that might make panic attacks more likely in people who are prone to having panic attacks. So what actually does trigger panic attacks?

One key trigger that mental health professionals are especially aware of in people with panic disorder is psychological distress. Psychological distress is an umbrella term to refer to a range of emotions and includes feelings of anxiety, stress, and depression. Hence, a key risk factor is being in situations that are likely to be stressful and cause anxiety which in turn, causes the onset of a panic attack.

Suffering from depression may also increase a person’s risk of a panic attack.

People who have a particular phobia such as claustrophobia (fear of enclosed spaces such as lifts in buildings) may experience a panic attack if they enter a tight, enclosed space.

Some people who experience panic attacks also believe that caffeine and smoking increase their risk of panic attacks.

It is helpful for people with panic disorder to know what their triggers are so that they can try to reduce their risk of panic attacks as best as they possibly can. However, it is important that people who experience panic attacks do not blame themselves for having them. They can get help and support.

what is a panic attack

What Is Panic Disorder?

Anxiety is an extremely common mental health condition; around eight million people in the UK experience anxiety. Therefore, some people are more prone to panic attacks than other people. The medical profession has created a medical label for the condition for people who are prone to recurring panic attacks which is panic disorders.

Panic attacks are usually linked to a person’s mental health and are one of many types of different mental health conditions. It is often defined as a type of anxiety disorder by the medical profession, but not exclusively so.

People who develop a panic disorder are more likely to experience anxiety, stress, and worry.

It is important to note that the medical profession is still not entirely sure why some people develop panic disorder. There are different opinions on its causes.

There is some evidence to suggest that people who have had traumatic life experiences are more likely to have panic attacks. Traumatic life experiences can include any form of physical or mental abuse, bereavement, and wars. People who have had traumatic life experiences may have panic attacks for years after the time of the trauma.

There is also some evidence to suggest that people who have a member of their biological family who has experienced panic attacks are more likely to develop panic disorder. However, it is not clear if this is related to genetics.

Other evidence points to chemical imbalances in the brain. Neurotransmitters are natural chemicals in the brain, and if there is an imbalance in these brain chemicals, this can cause panic attacks.

Our environment has also been found to be associated with an increased risk of panic attacks. There is some evidence pointing to increased exposure and increased sensitivity to carbon dioxide causing panic attacks.

Another theory for panic disorder is related to a person’s psychological disposition. People who experience catastrophic thinking may be more prone to panic attacks. This is because catastrophizing leads to a nervous system response that then causes a panic attack.

Diagnosing Panic Disorder

If you experience any of the symptoms of panic attacks, you may wish to get a medical diagnosis from a health care professional to help treat panic disorder and reduce future panic attacks. Therefore, the first port of call is usually your doctor or a nurse.

The health care professional you see will ask you about your experiences of panic attacks. They try to find out if there are clear risk factors and triggers for the panic attacks that you are having.

It is important and in your interest to be as open and transparent as possible about your experiences. Some people get upset and tearful when they talk to someone about their panic attacks. This is a perfectly natural response to talking about your experiences. Therefore, it may be helpful to remember that health care professionals are trained to listen carefully and support people who are upset.

The health care professional will need as much information as possible so that they can give you a correct diagnosis and prescribe the most suitable treatment for you.

Is There Treatment for Panic Disorder?

The good news is that there is a treatment for panic disorder.

Some people receive treatment and have a significant reduction in either the number and regularity of panic attacks or in the symptoms that they experience during a panic attack. Some people may not experience further attacks after their treatment plan.

People respond differently to treatment. For some people, treatment can take a long time to be effective. People may be offered a combination of different types of treatment.


A mental health professional may recommend medication, for example, an antidepressant. This is because an antidepressant medication is not just used to treat depression; it can be effective in the treatment of other mental health conditions such as panic disorder.

If you are prescribed an antidepressant then remember that it will not start to have an effect until at least a couple of weeks after taking it. It is therefore important to keep taking the medication as prescribed by the health care professional. The time of day taking it and the right dose is also important.

A very commonly prescribed antidepressant for treating panic disorder is selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI). This medication increases the amount of serotonin (a chemical) in your brain.

If this type of antidepressant is not effective then the health care professional can prescribe other types of medication. Common ones include:

  • Clonazepam

  • Pregabalin

  • Tricyclic antidepressants

Psychological Therapies

There are different therapies for the treatment of panic disorder. The most common psychological therapy that you may be prescribed is Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).

CBT is used in the treatment of a range of mental health conditions including panic disorder.

A specialist in CBT is likely to ask you for a very rich and full description of your experiences of panic attacks. The therapist will discuss any negative thoughts and feelings that you experience during a panic attack. The reason for doing this is so that you can replace these thoughts and feelings with a different set of more positive and realistic thoughts and feelings. This means that when you start to feel that you are having a panic attack, you can focus on these new thoughts and feelings.

Treatment With The Revoke Programme

Untreated mental health conditions can really take their toll on our thoughts and behaviors. They tend to have a knock-on effect that seeps into our everyday lives, affecting our relationships, work and well-being.

Effective treatment can help you overcome these problems by providing you with coping strategies and a supportive network to remind you that you are never alone.

Our intensive outpatient programme ensures that we are able to deliver core treatment while you continue with your day-to-day life.

We understand the importance of personalized treatment plans as mental disorders differ in everyone. We offer a range of treatment including:

  • Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT)

  • Dual diagnosis

  • Targeted trauma treatment

  • Guided group sessions

Contact us today to discuss treatment options for you.

what is a panic attack

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