Panic Attacks

Panic Attacks are episodes of intense anxiety accompanied by physical sensations like hyperventilation and a pounding heart. They can occur any time and without a threat of danger. While panic attacks can be scary, they’re not harmful to your physical health.

Panic attacks are episodes of intense fear with many physical symptoms. They can be triggered by certain situations, or they can seem to occur unexpectedly. They are caused by an activation of the body’s fight-or-flight response when there isn’t anything immediately dangerous happening. Often, panic attacks start happening during especially stressful times in life.

Panic attacks are common. Up to 1 in 3 people will experience one in their lifetime. If panic attacks are frequent and continue over time, they may be diagnosed as panic disorder. Panic attacks can also occur as a symptom of other anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, or other mental health conditions.

While the likelihood of having panic attacks is impacted by some factors that can’t be changed—like genetics—it’s also impacted by some things that can. Certain healthy lifestyle habits can lower overall anxiety levels, which in turn can reduce the chances of having a panic attack:

  • Move your body. Exercise—especially aerobic exercise—can be grounding and relieve anxiety.
  • Explore relaxation techniques like meditation and yoga.
  • Practice breathing techniques, which can help counteract hyperventilation in the moment. One technique is box breathing, where you fill your lungs while slowly counting to four, hold your breath for four counts, exhale completely for four counts, and hold for four counts. Then repeat the steps a few more times.
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco, which can trigger panic attacks for people who are prone to them.
  • Learn the symptoms. Recognizing when a panic attack is happening can help make it less scary.
  • Try not to let panic attacks restrict your activities, as this can worsen anxiety and panic attacks over time.


What are the Symptoms of Panic Attacks?

Panic attacks can have many symptoms, including:

  • Sense of danger or impending doom
  • Fear of losing control or dying
  • Pounding or racing heart
  • Hyperventilation (rapid, shallow breathing)
  • Nausea or abdominal cramping
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Chest pain
  • Sweating

In addition, people who have had panic attacks can develop a persistent fear of experiencing another one. This can negatively impact quality of life if individuals avoid situations or places where panic attacks have occurred in the past.

Sometimes panic attack symptoms can resemble symptoms of other health problems, including heart attacks. If you have new or concerning symptoms, talk to a healthcare professional to evaluate what could be causing them. A healthcare professional can also help find a treatment plan that’s right for you and connect you to support like counseling.


Factors that Impact the Likelihood of Experiencing Panic Attacks.

Researchers believe that genetics combines with other factors to influence how likely an individual is to experience panic attacks. Non-genetic factors that can increase this likelihood include:

  • Age—panic attacks are more common in younger adults.
  • Experiencing major life stress or traumatic events, like the death of a loved one
  • Having a family history of panic attacks or panic disorder
  • Certain mental health conditions, such as anxiety disorders and PTSD
  • A history of trauma or abuse in early life


Ways to Manage Panic Attacks.

If you do find yourself having a panic attack, there are some steps you can take in the moment to get through it more easily.

  • Slow down your breathing. Use the breathing exercises you’ve practiced, like box breathing, to quickly help counteract hyperventilation and calm the fight-or-flight response.
  • Try to stay put. Waiting for the panic attack to subside, rather than leaving the situation that triggered it, allows your nervous system to learn the situation is safe.
  • Ride it out. Remember that panic attacks usually subside within 5-20 minutes. When it’s over, you might feel tired. Take some time to rest and recharge.

Learn more about panic attacks from HelpGuide.


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