Health Agenda

Mental Health

What causes panic attacks (and how to manage the symptoms)

Panic attacks are more common than you might expect. Find out what causes panic attacks, what are the signs and how to deal with the symptoms.

Sweaty palms, racing heart, shortness of breath and light-headedness – these are symptoms we all experience at times in our lives when faced with difficult situations. But when they happen altogether, wrapped up in an ominous feeling of dread or fear, this could be a panic attack.

What is a panic attack?

A panic attack is a sudden and overwhelming period of intense fear, panic or discomfort in a situation where most people wouldn’t feel afraid.

Panic attacks are more common than you’d think. Up to 40% of the population will experience a panic attack at some point in their lives, and 5% of Australians will experience a panic disorder (when the panic attacks are recurrent and disabling) in their lifetime. 

What causes panic attacks?

When you’re faced with danger (real or imagined), your brain kicks into gear with a fight-or-flight response. Chemicals, like adrenaline, flood your body and cause physiological changes to occur, like an increased heart rate.

A panic attack happens when you have the physiological reaction of fight or flight, but there is no immediate danger.

There are different factors thought to play a role in activating panic attacks:

  • Chronic and ongoing stress
  • Experiencing a sudden traumatic event
  • A change in environment (like walking into a crowded shopping mall)
  • Excessive caffeine intake
  • Being a person who’s sensitive to stress or negative emotions
  • Illness (such as inner ear problems or diabetes)
  • Genetics.

What are the signs of a panic attack?

Panic attacks can happen quite quickly and at any time. Symptoms of a panic attack include:

  • Intense and overwhelming feelings of panic or fear
  • Increased heart rate
  • Excessive sweating
  • Dizziness, light-headedness or numbness
  • Feeling like you’re dying, choking, losing control or going mad
  • Feeling detached from your surroundings, or that the world around you isn’t real.

A panic attack can last anywhere from a few minutes to half an hour. During the attack, people usually feel totally overwhelmed and disabled.

When panic attacks are repeated or persistent, it’s a sign that someone may have a panic disorder.

The symptoms of a panic disorder are:

  • experiencing at least four physical symptoms and
  • worrying for at least one month about having more attacks or
  • worrying about what the attacks mean or
  • exhibiting a significant change in their behaviour related to the attacks.

How to manage a panic attack

If you feel like you’ve had panic attacks, or your child may have had one, speak to your GP about your concerns and how to deal with the symptoms. It’s best to get advice from health professionals. If you or someone you know is experiencing what may be a panic attack, psychologist Sabina Read suggests:

  • Relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, focusing on something outside your body like a tree blowing in the wind, or counting backwards from 100 three times.
  • Remind yourself that despite the symptoms being uncomfortable, they are not life-threatening, the panic attack will end, and the feelings will pass.
  • Avoid fleeing from the situation and talking yourself out of having the feelings. Allow the attack to pass and you’ll feel more confident you can handle the symptoms if they happen again.

What it’s like as a young person experiencing unexpected panic attacks

In episode one of the HCF’s new season of Navigating Parenthood – Talking to teens podcast, 19-year-old Gen shares her experience of study, stress and panic attacks, and her thoughts on how parents can support children experiencing this.

  • It’s hard to know who to talk to
    “I really wanted to prove myself [in year 12] but felt like I couldn’t,” says Gen. “I had the expectation of my parents to do well and they had sacrificed so much for me to be able to get a good education. I couldn’t talk to my friends either, because they were going through exams too and they were stressed, and I already felt so in debt to my teachers for everything they’d done for me.”
  • Stress and anxiety are easy to hide
    “Hiding it from my mum and dad was easy because I could get away and out of the house,” says Gen. “I could hide my stress from them by masquerading it as ‘I’m studying really hard’, but actually I was freaking out.”
  • Start the conversation
    “I wish my parents encouraged more conversations,” she says. “I wish they suggested going for a walk or for a drive to initiate conversation. I think if we’d had more conversations, I would have known I could be vulnerable with them.”

What’s it like to be an adult who experiences panic attacks?

Megan Blandford, 37, is a writer and Claire Johnson*, 47, is a teacher. Both have experienced severe panic attacks. Megan’s panic attacks started in her early 20s and Claire had her first panic attack in her early 30s.

  • “It felt like I was having a heart attack”
    “Twelve years ago, I had a severe panic attack that felt like I was having a heart attack,” recalls Claire. “That day I had two or three more, and then over that week I had at least one a day and through the night.”
  • The triggers aren’t always obvious
    “I don’t know what my triggers are,” says Claire. “I could be at the shops or sitting at home and one could come on.” For Megan, panic attacks tend to come when she’s doing something new and ‘scary’. “They come up at vulnerable points, like pregnancy, motherhood and trying to do big, new things.”
  • What has helped
    “Now I know the feelings before they start, I focus on things around me and take really deep breaths,” says Claire. “If that doesn’t work, I’ll find a crunchy food like a biscuit and the motion from my jaw and the noise can help lessen the impact.”

    “I’ve done lots of work in counselling to get to the cause of my anxiety,” says Megan. “I’ve become very mindful of my inner voice and how hard I am on myself. I can now usually see the panic building and settle it with mindfulness, meditation, talking to myself kindly or taking deep breaths.”

    “What helps us stay mentally well is very similar to what keeps us physically well,” says Dr Stephen Carbone, Policy, Evaluation and Research Leader at beyondblue. Managing stress with a healthy diet, good sleep and regular exercise can make real inroads into mental wellbeing.
  • Reducing the stigma
    “My kids have seen me have a panic attack and it was upsetting for them and me,” says Megan. “I talk to them about the importance of being kind to ourselves, and I’ve explained that panic attacks happen when I’ve been struggling to treat myself well. I talk openly about the help I’ve sought, hoping this means they won’t see stigma in asking for help if they ever find themselves struggling.”

Need more information on, or help with, panic attacks?

If you’re concerned about your panic attacks, or those of someone you know, or if you're worried about anxiety or anxiety in children, you can get professional help from a counsellor, your GP, a mental health service, a mental health professional or a psychologist.

You can also use these trusted online resources about panic attacks and anxiety disorders:

Words by Lindy Alexander
First published February 2020

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