What is a panic attack

What is a panic attack? Signs, symptoms and what to do

Panic attacks can be scary, but , with the right tools, they can be managed effectively. Here are the signs, symptoms, and common treatment options.

Signs and symptoms of panic attacks

Experiencing a panic attack can be incredibly scary. Put simply, a panic attack is a sudden feeling of intense fear.

Your body and mind go into ‘fight or flight mode’, setting off a range of physical and emotional symptoms, including:

  • A strong sense of fear or danger
  • A feeling of being out of control
  • Being scared you are going to die
  • A rapid, pounding heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Chills
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Nausea
  • Breathlessness, dizziness, faintness or lightheadedness
  • Feeling detached from reality
  • Chest pain

Panic attacks usually last between five and 20 minutes, but they can last up to an hour.

Panic disorder

While it’s very normal to have occasional feelings of fear or anxiety, especially during stressful or distressing situations, regular and unexpected panic attacks could be a sign of panic disorder.

Panic disorder affects up to 5% of Australians at some point in their lives, and it’s more common among women than men. It doesn’t discriminate: people from any walk of life, age, socioeconomic background or faith can experience panic disorder.

There are two types of panic attacks, expected (in distressing circumstances, or if you have become overwhelmed) and unexpected (when nothing has triggered the panic attack and it just happens).

A health professional might reach a diagnosis of panic disorder if someone experiences at least one unexpected panic attack, followed by ongoing worry about having more panic attacks, or changes in behaviour to try and avoid them. In this case, ‘ongoing’ refers to longer than a month.

Panic attacks vs anxiety attacks: what’s the difference?

A panic attack like the ones described above are a medically diagnosable event. The symptoms are outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which helps doctors and other health professionals reach shared conclusions about what someone’s symptoms might mean.

Anxiety attacks have not been as widely researched and are not featured in the DSM-5, but anxiety symptoms can have some similarities to panic attacks, including worry, distress and fear.

In any case, if you or a loved one is experiencing symptoms of overwhelming fear or distress, it’s important to talk to someone and seek help as soon as you can. 

Managing panic attacks

While the panic attack is happening, slow deep breaths, sitting down, moving to a quiet place and stopping what you are doing (especially if you are walking, driving or riding a bike) can all help to slow your body’s response down and allow the panic symptoms to pass.

For management of ongoing panic attacks and panic disorder, there are a range of options available. A trained psychologist or psychiatrist can help to build up behaviour patterns and tools to manage feelings of fear or anxiety before they become panic attacks, or to process circumstances or past events that might be contributing to panic attacks.

Reach out for support

As the largest private provider of mental health care in Australia, we are dedicated to making a real difference in the lives of those we treat, with whatever pathway they need.

We offer a range of services designed to support people experiencing mental health issues like panic attacks, anxiety, depression, and a range of other conditions.

We encourage you to reach out to our expert team who can assist you in finding the right avenue for your mental health care journey.