Don’t Panic! How to recognise a Panic Attack

By Reception on July 12, 2017 in Anxiety

Up to 40% of Australians will experience a panic attack at some point in their lives. Learn about the various symptoms of a panic attack and what you can do to manage them. (reference

What is a panic attack?

A panic attack is an intense rush of fear or anxiety that causes a person to feel like they’re in imminent danger when no danger is present. It can last from a few minutes to half an hour; however, the physical and emotional effects of the attack can last much longer.

Symptoms may include:

  • racing heart
  • sweating
  • shortness of breath or feelings of choking
  • dizziness
  • feeling numb or tingling sensations
  • fear of going crazy
  • fear of dying
  • queasy stomach
  • feeling detached from oneself.

Panic attacks are often made worse when a person doesn’t realise that their symptoms are due to anxiety. Someone having a panic attack gets caught in a vicious cycle: they become more and more anxious and their symptoms get worse and worse. (reference

Important facts to know about panic attacks:

1.   Panic attacks are sudden and frightening

Panic attacks are a sudden and overwhelming experience of anxiety and fear. They can be an abrupt escalation of pre-existing anxiety or can seemingly arise out of the blue.

2.   They are relatively common.

One study found one in four people reported having had an anxiety attack at some point in their life, but other sources have suggested that  as many as a third of Australian university students reported suffering a panic attack.  Women are more prone to them, and though they can be experienced at any life stage the typical onset is between 25 and 30.

Up to 40% of Australians will experience a panic attack

3.   Sufferers do not always know they are experiencing a panic attack

Symptoms range from dizziness or trembling, to a racing heart or rapid breathing, sweatiness of feeling extreme hot or cold. The manifestation is so intense and physical that sufferers do not realise it is prompted by psychological factors. In the moment, many believe they may die.

4.    A panic attack cannot last forever

Adrenaline plays a significant role in panic attacks, with physical symptoms occurring when the body is flooded with the hormone in response to a perceived threat. Associate Professor Vijaya Manicavasagar, an anxiety and panic expert who heads up psychological services at the Black Dog Institute in Sydney, says: “The hormones that flood your system are finite and need to be replenished. So an attack can only last 15-20 minutes before your body starts to return to normal. If you can ride it out you will start to feel better.”


5.   You can manage the symptoms

Psychologists recommend a range of strategies to help you contain the symptoms of a panic attack. This may include deliberately breathing slowly, or breathing into a paper bag (just as in movies of old), or trying simple distraction, such as turning on a TV show or piece of music or calling a friend.

6.   Look at the causes

Associate Professor Manicavasagar says that sufferers who can identify the factors that contributed to the attack generally fare better. “It is a good thing to pin a reason on the attack.  If you are able to reassure yourself that it was prompted by, say, that exam or your worry about you mum’s health, you are less likely to worry that another will strike at any time”.

7.   It is still important to have a physical check up

Many lifestyle factors – such as over-consumption of coffee, lack of sleep, stress or underlying health issues – can trigger or contribute to the attacks. Addressing these triggers and ensuring a healthy lifestyle can help keep other panic attacks at bay.

8.  Panic attacks can become panic disorder

It is possible to have one or two panic attacks and then experience no re-occurrence. However, panic attacks left unaddressed can lead to a panic disorder, which is defined as several panic attacks a month and/or a disabling fear of experiencing further panic attacks. Associate Professor Manicavasagar calls this a ‘fear of fear’ and it has been linked with the development of agoraphobia.

9.   Panic disorder is treatable

Psychologists use cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) to help suffers identify and alleviate the symptoms of panic attacks or panic disorder. Associate Professor Manicavasagar says: “Many sufferers are still reluctant to seek help, and it is thought many suffer for years because of stigma, but CBT can give people the skills to understand their triggers and manage the symptoms so these attacks don’t adversely affect their lives.” In other cases, psychologists use a form of exposure therapy, in which they guide sufferers through exposure to places or experiences they feel may trigger attacks.


cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT)

Psychologists use cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) to help suffers identify and alleviate the symptoms of panic attacks or panic disorder





Extract from Author Associate Professor Vijaya Manicavasagar  book Overcoming Panic (Little Brown).


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