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Panic attack

3-minute read

What is a panic attack?

A panic attack is a response to a stressful situation, where you feel like you are losing control.

If you have a panic attack, you might have a racing heart and be flushed with pain in your chest. You might feel sweaty, shaky, dizzy, faint and breathless.

It can take time to work out whether you are having a panic attack or a heart problem.

If you are in any doubt, and you have pain in your chest, then call triple zero (000) immediately and ask for an ambulance. If calling triple zero (000) does not work on your mobile phone, try calling 112.

What are the symptoms of a panic attack?

Panic attack symptoms can strike at any time. They come on very rapidly and usually peak within a few minutes. Symptoms often include:

  • sweating
  • trembling or shaking
  • increased heart rate
  • chest pain
  • shortness of breath
  • feeling like you’re choking
  • nausea or pain in the stomach
  • dizziness, feeling lightheaded or faint
  • numbness or tingling
  • depersonalisation (feeling detached from yourself or your surroundings)
  • hot or cold flushes
  • fear of dying
  • fear of losing control, or that you’re going crazy
  • sense of impending doom or danger

What causes a panic attack?

Panic attacks are very common, with up to 5 in every 100 Australians experiencing a panic attack at some stage in their life. During a panic episode, someone is overwhelmed and disabled by the physical symptoms listed above. The panic reaches its peak after about 10 minutes and can take up to half an hour to subside. A panic episode leaves the person feeling temporarily exhausted and drained.

Having a panic attack doesn’t necessarily mean you have panic disorder. Panic disorder is when you have repeated panic attacks that severely disrupt your life.

Panic attacks can be caused by:

  • chronic, persistent stress
  • genetics
  • a temperament that is sensitive to stress or negative emotions
  • changes in the way your brain functions

How do I treat and prevent panic attacks?

There are self-help, psychological and medical options available to treat and avoid panic attacks. Panic is associated with anxiety and the treatments are similar. During a panic attack:

  • Avoid ‘self-talk’ that focuses your attention on your symptoms — don’t tell yourself to ‘stop panicking!’
  • Reassure yourself that the symptoms of a panic attack are uncomfortable but not life threatening.
  • Focus your attention on something outside your own body and symptoms. For example, try to recall the words to your favourite song or concentrate on the sights and sounds around you.
  • Fleeing from the situation will confirm your fear that your panic symptoms are unbearable. Try to sit and allow the symptoms to pass and get confidence in your ability to cope.

Where to get help

If you need help, talking to your doctor is a good place to start. If you’d like to find out more or talk to someone else, here are some organisations that can help:

  • MindSpot Clinic (anyone suffering from anxiety or depression) — call 1800 61 44 34.
  • beyondblue (anyone feeling depressed or anxious) — call 1300 22 4636 or chat online.
  • Black Dog Institute (people affected by depression and extreme mood swings) — online help.
  • Lifeline (anyone experiencing a crisis or thinking about suicide) — call 13 11 14 or chat online.
  • Suicide Call Back Service (anyone thinking about suicide) — call 1300 659 467.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: August 2019

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