A panic attack is a sudden and intense episode of fear that causes a variety of physical and cognitive symptoms. It can happen at any time, triggering a “fight-or-flight” response, even when you’re feeling calm.
Panic attacks are different from anxiety in that they’re more intense and abrupt. A panic attack typically peaks within minutes, while anxiety persists. The symptoms of a panic attack can vary from person to person, but the most common ones include:
- Racing or pounding heart
- Shaking or trembling
- Shortness of breath or feeling like you’re choking
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Feeling dizzy, light-headed, or faint
- Chills or hot flashes
- Numbness or tingling
- Feeling detached from your body or having a sense of things being unreal
- Feeling like you’re losing control
- Fearing you’re dying
Panic Attack Triggers and Risk Factors
Panic attacks can occur out of the blue, coming on for no apparent reason.
Some people even experience something called a nocturnal panic attack, which is when they wake from sleep in full panic mode.
Most people report experiencing some sort of stressful event, such as a death in the family, illness, substance misuse, or a relationship problem, in the months prior to their first panic attack.
Other triggers and risk factors associated with panic attacks include:
- Facing a feared situation
- Chronic stress
- Certain medications
- Having overprotective parents or experiencing parental rejection
- Some medical conditions, such as COPD
How Common Are Panic Attacks?
Approximately 1 in 8 people worldwide will experience a panic attack at some point in their life.
Women and younger adults are more likely to experience panic attacks than men or older adults.
People who are prone to cognitive distortions or who are shy and easily distressed in new situations are more likely to have panic attacks.
Also, people who fear uncertainty are more prone to panic.
Panic Attack Coping Skills
If you have panic attacks, it's helpful to have a plan in place to feel more in control. Some in-the-moment coping strategies for panic include:
- Self-talk. Remind yourself that you’re not in danger and that it will pass, or repeat a meaningful mantra or affirmation to yourself (e.g., “It’s only a panic attack; it can’t hurt me”). Here's a list of 29 positive affirmations for anxiety.
- Breathing exercises. Breathe slowly and gently in and out of your nose. Here's a list of 9 breathing exercises you can experiment with and discover what works best for you.
- Reach out to someone you trust. Talk to a trusted person or ask them to just sit quietly with you.
- Immerse yourself in nature. If possible, go outside and spend time somewhere green, by the water, or in a forest. Nature has a powerful impact on wellbeing.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is helpful at treating and reducing the frequency of panic attacks. CBT helps people to identify and challenge cognitive distortions and beliefs about panic attacks, as well as teaching them coping skills for managing anxiety.
Breathing training is another effective way to manage panic attacks. This involves learning to breathe more slowly and deeply, which can help to reduce the symptoms of hyperventilation.
Lifestyle medicine can help to reduce the severity of panic attacks. This includes eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, and limiting caffeine and alcohol.
Participating in a support community, such as the Anxiety and Depression Association of America’s peer-to-peer group, can be helpful for people with panic attacks by providing a sense of community and understanding, and helping people learn from others who have had similar experiences.
Remember, you’re not alone! Panic attacks are manageable, and there’s help out there for anyone who struggles with panic.
Self-Guided Support for Anxiety and Panic
Research shows that self-help materials are often enough for people to overcome mild to moderate mental health difficulties without professional support.
If you’re interested in a self-guided program that includes tools from CBT, DBT, ACT and more, be sure to check out The Mental Wellbeing Toolkit. It's "like 10 therapy sessions in one."
Cassie Jewell, LPC, LSATP, is a mental health counselor and board-approved clinical supervisor in Northern Virginia.
She has a master’s degree in Community Counseling and specializes in addiction, anxiety disorders, and trauma.
She is the creator and author of Mind Remake Project, a therapy and self-help resource site. When she’s not writing or counseling, Cassie is traveling the world.