Panic Attacks - What are they? And how do I stop a panic attack?

What is a panic attack?

A panic attack is a sudden intense feeling of anxiety. Panic attacks are common. Around 23% of people will experience one at some point in their life. They can be triggered by stress or anxiety, or sometimes they have no obvious cause. 

The physical symptoms of a panic attack are caused by a biological reaction to fear called the 'fight or flight response'. If you were in real danger, these biological changes (such as increased heart rate and sweating) would be beneficial. These changes help prepare the body to fight or run away from danger. During a panic attack, this same biological fear response is activated even though there is no real danger. It is like a false alarm. 

Common symptoms of a panic attack:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Fast or shallow breathing
  • Sweating 
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Tightness in your throat, feeling like you are choking
  • Pain or tightness in your chest
  • Nausea
  • Feeling lightheaded, dizzy, or faint
  • Numbness or tingling in your fingers
  • Feeling hot and cold
  • Feeling detached from yourself (Depersonalisation)
  • A feeling of unreality (Derealisation)
  • Feeling like you are dying, losing control, in danger, or going crazy. 


How do I stop a panic attack?

A panic attack can be a scary and overwhelming experience. You may feel like you have no control, but there are effective ways to calm a panic attack. Here are tips and examples -

First - recognise this is a panic attack and that these feelings will pass:

During a panic attack some people say they feel like they are dying, having a heart attack, or losing control. This is not true and these thoughts can increase your level of anxiety. Remember that you are safe and these feelings are temporary. 


Slowing and controlling your breathing is key to calming a panic attack. During a panic attack it is common to take shallow fast breaths. This type of breathing lowers the amount of carbon dioxide in the body which can cause some of the symptoms of a panic attack, such as feeling dizzy and getting tingling feelings in your fingers and toes. Slowing your breathing can reduce these symptoms, calm your body and stop the panic attack. 

Here is a simple breathing exercise to control and slow down your breathing:

  • 1) Take a slow deep breath in through your nose for 4 seconds.
  • 2) Hold your breath for 1 second.
  • 3) Slowly breathe out through your mouth for 6 seconds.
  • 4) Repeat.

Breathing tips:

  • Close your eyes - this can help to block out other distractions so you can focus on your breathing.
  • Aim to breathe into your stomach, not your chest - it may help to place a hand over your stomach to feel it rising and falling with each breath. 
  • You may find it helps to picture your breath moving around in a circle or square shape.
  • It may be helpful to picture a balloon filling with air as you breathe in and then deflating as you breathe out. 

Use your senses to ground you:

Grounding techniques involve using your senses to help you stay focused on the present moment. Focusing on your senses and the environment can shift your attention and make you feel more in control, reduce anxiety, and calm the panic attack.

Grounding technique example - The 54321 Method:

  • Find a calm and comfortable place to sit, if possible go outside.
  • Focus on taking slow deep breaths and identify….
    • 5 things you can see
    • 4 things you can feel 
    • 3 things you can hear 
    • 2 things you can smell 
    • 1 thing you can taste (or think of a favourite taste)

Guided Imagery:

Guided imagery is a visualisation technique which can help to reduce anxiety.

  • Close your eyes and picture yourself in a place where you feel calm and safe.
    • Ideally choose a place in nature - maybe the beach or a forest.
  • Take slow deep breaths.
  • Focus all your attention and all your senses on this place. 
    • What can you see, feel, hear, smell, taste?

Use mantras:

Find mantras, quotes, or words that make you feel calm and confident in your ability to get through a panic attack. Write these down on a piece of paper or in a notes app on your phone.

Some examples:

  • This feeling is temporary and it will pass. 
  • I am safe. 
  • I am strong enough to get through this. 

Get support:

Call a friend, family member, or someone you trust. They could help talk you through a breathing exercise, help to distract you, or just be there to provide support. 


What should I do after a panic attack?

Take care of yourself:

Panic attacks are short, they usually last 10 to 20 minutes, but it is normal to feel anxious or unwell for hours afterwards. After a panic attack take it easy, do something you enjoy or something that makes you feel calm.

Avoid avoidance:

The fear of having another panic attack can lead people to avoid places or situations that they think will make them feel anxious or cause another panic attack. This is called avoidance. It is important to not avoid these places or situations as this can further increase anxiety. 

Get professional support:

Mental health professionals, such as psychologists and counsellors, can help you develop strategies to manage stress and anxiety, and reduce the chances of a future panic attack. If you think you would benefit from professional help, talk to your GP or look for a therapist in your area.


How can I help someone who is having a panic attack?

Stay calm and ask the person how you can help. They may want you to sit and work through a breathing exercise with them or they may ask you to distract them; different things will help different people. Reassure then that this feeling is temporary, they are safe, and these feelings will pass.