A panic attack is a feeling of sudden and intense anxiety.
Panic attacks usually have physical symptoms. These can include shaking, feeling disorientated, nausea, rapid and irregular heartbeats. You may also experience dry mouth, breathlessness, sweating and dizziness.
The symptoms of a panic attack are not dangerous but can be very frightening. They can make you think that something catastrophic is just about to happen.
They can feel as though you are having a heart attack, or that you are going to collapse or even die.
Most panic attacks last somewhere from 5 minutes to half an hour.
How to handle a panic attack
It's important not to let your fear of panic attacks control you.
Panic attacks always pass and the symptoms are not a sign of anything harmful happening. Tell yourself that anxiety is causing the symptoms you're experiencing.
Ride out the attack. Try to keep doing things. If possible, don't leave the situation until the anxiety has subsided.
Confront your fear. If you don't run away from it, you're giving yourself a chance to discover that the thing that you are fearful of happening is very unlikely to happen. Or be as bad as your anxiety predicts it will be.
As the anxiety begins to pass, start to focus on your surroundings and continue to do what you were doing before. Remind yourself, the thing you panicked would happen didn't happen. Or wasn't as bad as you thought it would be.
If you're having a short, sudden panic attack, it can be helpful to have someone with you. They can reassure you that it will pass and the symptoms are nothing to worry about.
Breathing exercise for panic attacks
If you're breathing quickly during a panic attack, doing a breathing exercise can help. Follow these steps:
- Breathe in as slowly, deeply and gently as you can, through your nose
- Breathe out slowly, deeply and gently through your mouth
- Some people find it helpful to count steadily from 1 to 5 on each in-breath and each out-breath
- Close your eyes and focus on your breathing
You should start to feel better in a few minutes. You may feel tired afterwards.
Preventing panic attacks
You need to try to work out what particular stress you might be under that could make your symptoms worse. It's important not to restrict your movements and daily activities.
Things you can do
- Doing breathing exercises every day will help to prevent panic attacks. It will also help to relieve them when they are happening.
- Regular exercise helps to manage stress levels, release tension, improve your mood and boost confidence.
- Eat regular meals to stabilise your blood sugar levels.
- Avoid caffeine, alcohol and smoking – these can make panic attacks worse.
- Panic support groups have useful advice about how you can manage your attacks. Knowing that other people are experiencing the same feelings can be reassuring.
- Psychological therapies like Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can identify and change the negative thought patterns. It's these thought patterns that are feeding your panic attacks.
If you feel constantly stressed and anxious, particularly about when your next panic attack may be, you may have panic disorder.
People with panic disorder may avoid situations that might cause a panic attack. They may also fear and avoid public spaces. This is known as agoraphobia.
There's no quick fix, but if your attacks are happening time after time, seek professional help.
Content supplied by the NHS and adapted for Ireland by the HSE.