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Most of us will feel anxious or panicky at some point in our lives. For example, we might get a sudden fright and feel jumpy. These feelings usually pass quite quickly. Panic attacks can feel very different. They often happen for no reason, they can happen suddenly, and can feel intense and hard to cope with.

When we panic, it’s usually because our bodies think we’re in danger.

A panic attack can last between 5-20 minutes and usually at its worst within 10 minutes. If you’re having a panic attack, you might notice:

  • Racing heart or palpitations
  • Short of breath or feel like you can’t get enough air
  • Pains in your chest
  • Sweating or shaking
  • Feeling sick
  • Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
  • Numbness or tingling sensations
  • Hot or cold chills
  • Feeling detached from yourself or reality
  • Fear of losing control or dying

These feelings can be really scary, but it’s important to know that they aren’t dangerous. It might not feel like it in the moment, but the feelings will eventually pass.

What is panic disorder?

Panic disorder is a type of anxiety where you experience regular panic attacks. They can still happen without you expecting them, but you might worry about having another panic attack in the future. You might avoid certain places, situations, or activities.

We know that it might feel helpful to avoid these situations right now, but it might make you want to avoid them again in the future. This can create a pattern that leaves you feeling anxious each time you are faced with a certain situation.

Sometimes, people can also experience agoraphobia. This is when you might feel really anxious and panicky in situations where it might be hard to get help or escape, such as busy crowds, public spaces, or even wide-open areas. It might be anywhere outside of your home or away from where you feel safe.

Why does it happen?

Panic attacks and panic disorder are common and can happen to anyone. You might only experience one panic attack in your life, or you might have them more often.

The ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response is something we all have, and it’s important that we do! This response is automatic and is there to keep us safe if we’re ever in harm’s way. It happens quickly, pumping adrenaline around your body to help you prepare and respond. This is either to:

  • Protect you (fight)
  • Help you escape (flight)

For example, if we stepped out onto the road and a car was coming towards us, the fight or flight response would help us get out of the way. Our breathing might quicken so our bodies can get extra oxygen, our hearts might beat faster to make sure enough blood is getting to the muscles for us to move faster. This can all happen very quickly!

Once our bodies know we’re no longer in danger, or if all of the adrenaline is used up – our bodies will return to normal.

All of this is important to keep us safe, but it can be quite scary if it happens for no reason. In a panic attack, we might experience these physical changes even if there is no danger nearby. Our bodies can’t tell the difference between a real threat, and what we think is a threat. Either way, it will start to kick in to keep us safe. Really important, but sometimes frustrating!

It’s completely normal to think that these physical changes are signs of something life-threatening. It’s common for people to think they’re experiencing a heart attack. They can be scary, hard to manage, and can have a negative impact on your daily life if they happen regularly.

It might feel like a good idea to avoid certain situations, or leave a place if we start to have these feelings. These are known as ‘safety behaviours’. While these can seem helpful right now, we can start relying on them every time. This starts to create a pattern, where we aren’t giving ourselves the chance to cope without those safety behaviours.

Practical tips

There are lots of things you can do to help yourself right now.

  • Talk to someone about how you’re feeling. Talking to a family member, close friend or a colleague can be helpful, even if it’s just to get some of your worries off your chest.
  • Calming techniques, breathing exercises and grounding exercises can be helpful to help you relax and calm down in the moment. Take a look at some of the NHS self-help advice here.
  • Make time for yourself and do the things you enjoy. This might be going out for a walk, spending time reading a new book, or watching your favourite TV show.
  • We know it can feel tough, but try not to avoid or withdraw from the things that you normally do each day, as this might make things worse in the long-term.
  • Start off small to avoid getting overwhelmed. For example, if you’re worried about going for a walk alone, take someone with you first. Eventually, you might feel confident enough going by yourself.
  • Take care of yourself physically. Make sure you’re getting enough physical activity each day if that’s an option for you, and don’t forget to eat well and get a good amount of sleep.
  • Avoid using alcohol, drugs or smoking to cope with a panic attack.

Speak to your GP, or self-refer to free and confidential NHS Talking Therapies

We know that it can be hard to ask for help. But it’s important to get the right help and support if you are struggling. Our free and confidential talking therapies can help you to work through your problems, manage your feelings, and find better ways to cope in the future.

Find out more about our NHS Talking Therapies here.

Click here for more information and advice on anxiety, fear and panic.

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