What is a panic attack?

A panic attack is an exaggeration of your body’s normal response to fear, stress or excitement. It is the rapid build-up of overwhelming physical sensations, such as:

  • A pounding heartbeat
  • Feeling faint
  • Sweating
  • Nausea (feeling sick)
  • Chest pains
  • Feeling unable to breathe
  • Shaky limbs, or feeling like your legs are turning to jelly
  • Feeling like you are not connected to your body

“I could feel all these physical symptoms building inside me, literally filling every part of my body until I felt completely light-headed and disembodied. I felt like I couldn’t breathe, I just wanted to get out, go somewhere else, but I couldn’t because I was on a train.” 

During a panic attack you might feel very afraid that:

  • You are losing control
  • You are going to faint
  • You are having a heart attack
  • You are going to die

“My teeth would chatter uncontrollably and my whole body would tremble, I’d hyperventilate and cry with panic as the feeling that I was going to fall unconscious was so convincing.”

When do panic attacks happen?

It is different for different people. You might have a good understanding about situations or places that are likely to trigger an attack for you, or you might feel that your attacks come without warning and happen at random.

Panic attacks can also come in the night while you are asleep and wake you up. This can happen if your brain is very alert (due to anxiety) and interprets small changes in your body as a sign of danger. Experiencing a panic attack during the night can be particularly frightening, as you may feel confused about what is happening and are helpless to do anything to spot it coming.

“I can’t sleep due to panic attacks and nightmares. When I fall asleep within an hour I am up, soaked, heart racing and shaking.”

How long do panic attacks last?

Most panic attacks last for between 5 and 20 minutes. They can come on very quickly, and your symptoms will usually peak within 10 minutes. Sometimes you might experience symptoms of a panic attack which last for up to an hour. If this happens you are probably experiencing one attack after another, or a high level of anxiety after the initial panic attack.

How often might I have panic attacks?

Again, it is different for different people. You might have one panic attack and never experience another, or you might have attacks once a month or even several times a week.

What can I do about panic attacks?

Having a panic attack can be a truly terrifying experience, but there are things you can do:

  • For practical suggestions about how to manage anxiety and panic attacks, see ‘How can I help myself manage anxiety?’
  • You might also find it helpful to read our information on ‘What treatment can I get for anxiety?’
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