February 8, 2024

Panic attacks and how we can help

What are panic attacks?

Panic attacks are a fear response and experienced when there is a sudden and rapid increase in anxiety. They are often unpleasant for the sufferer but are not life-threatening.

Actions that can help

Panic attacks are distressing and can be perceived as uncontrollable. However, there are some coping strategies that may be of benefit:

  1. Slow breathing: Panic attacks can affect your breathing, commonly making it more shallow and rapid. This can have a knock-on effect on your heart rate and can exacerbate fears that something bad is about to happen. Through the deliberate process of slow breathing, you can regulate your breath back to a state of normalcy. One way of doing this is to deliberately breathe in through your nose as you count to three and breathe out through your mouth for the same length of time.
  2. Use your senses: Some people find it helpful to touch an object, for instance something soft or comforting, as a way of managing the symptoms of a panic attack, or to smell something pungent to help ground them.
  3. Approach: Panic attacks can act as cues that certain situations, places, or people are to be avoided as we believe approaching them would put us in danger. People often use avoidance as a strategy to prevent a panic attack. However, although this provides short term relief, avoidance can reinforce the belief that situations, places or people are in fact dangerous, leading to further avoidance. By approaching something that could act as a potential trigger, even in a small way, you can start testing this notion. For example, you may have to ride the lift up to the top floor for a meeting, despite a fear of confined spaces. You can then set yourself a goal to ride the lift one floor to begin with, which may still be anxiety-provoking, but not as much as riding all the way to the top. Try to approach easier situations first before moving onto more challenging ones.
  4. Talk to someone: Many people worry that others will not understand about panic attacks if they open up, or that they will be judged. However, this is frequently not the case and many find it helpful to tell a trusted friend or family member about their experience of anxiety. This opens up the possibility to agree how they would like to be helped in difficult situations.
  5. Learn coping statements: You can come up with self-coping phrases to say to yourself when you feel the onset of a panic attack. Such as, “I am safe” or “This is temporary, anxiety always passes” as a way of reminding yourself you have been through this before and you are not, in fact, in danger.


These can vary from person to person but a few symptoms are commonly shared between many:

Sudden feelings of terror or thoughts of doom

Some people have a feeling something bad is going to happen or that they are about to lose control over the here-and-now.

Pounding heart

Many experience an increased heart rate.

Changes to your breathing (hyperventilation)

Some people start breathing more rapidly and breathing becomes more shallow.

Tingling and numbing sensations in the hands

You may also experience an urge to clench and unclench your fists.

Shaking and sweating

You can experience trembling hands or trembling all over - it is common to experience shaky legs in addition to increased sweating.

Worrying that you will die

Some people start fearing their bodies are failing and they might be dying. This is understandable as panic attacks often have a real physiological effect. However, though unpleasant, panic attacks are not life threatening.

Detachment from your environment

You can start feeling distant from the environment you find yourself in, or like it’s not real.

These are common symptoms associated with panic attacks although each of our experiences are unique. If you can start recognising a set of symptoms specific to your experience, it can be the first step towards learning how to cope more effectively.


Panic attacks are usually treatable, even though many people who experience them may not have access to, or receive, the treatment needed. There is no ONE single intervention for panic attacks, as everyone is different (and the causes and experience differs). There are some treatments that have been proven clinically effective:

  1. Self-help for panic attacks

There are a wealth of resources, both online and available through your GP, which provide information and useful strategies to help people manage living with panic attacks more effectively. These may include: speaking to a trusted friend, grounding techniques, lifestyle changes, and breathing exercises as mentioned above.

  1. Talking therapies

Talking therapies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy have proven effective in the treatment of panic attacks. Engaging in psychological therapy gives you a space to understand potential triggers, what helps, what makes them harder to manage, and look at developing more adaptive ways to cope, amongst other things.

  1. Medication

Some prescribed medication can help alleviate the symptoms of panic attacks and reduce the impact on day-to-day life. You should talk to your GP or psychiatrist about options available, the benefits, and any potential side-effects. Medication can be prescribed as a stand-alone treatment or in combination with, for instance, talking therapies.

How to get help

The first step is to take action towards getting support and treatment. Seeking help is the best thing you can do. This could be as simple as talking to someone you trust, such as a family member or a friend. In addition you can talk to your GP or a charity such as MIND who will be able to provide you with more information as to how to get the right help.

Panic Attacks - Five facts

  1. Panic attacks usually last no more than 10 minutes, and rarely any longer than 1 hour
  2. Panic attacks are often associated with anxiety, although they can occur in a range of mental health conditions, including PTSD and depression. Panic attacks can also be experienced in the absence of a mental health difficulty.
  3. Panic attacks can occur both expectedly and unexpectedly - the former is likely when a person finds themselves in a situation likely to trigger a fear response (e.g. someone who has a phobia for water and is on the beach). The latter can occur out of the blue and without any obvious triggers.
  4. Some people also experience nocturnal panic attacks whilst asleep - these are symptomatically similar to daytime panic attacks and can startle a person out of sleep.
  5. About 1.7% of the UK population suffer from panic disorder - meaning they experience recurring panic attacks.

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