What is a panic attack

About 1 in 4 people will experience a panic attack at some stage in their life. But what is a panic attack exactly? Panic attacks are characterised by abrupt surges of intense fear and anxiety. These attacks peak within a short time and cause distressing physical symptoms. Often because the first attack occurs unexpectedly without an obvious trigger, the attack is interpreted as ‘something must be seriously wrong with me’.  Panic can be mis-interpreted as having a heart attack or going crazy. These mis-interpreations increase the anxiety and fuel the panic. And because the first attack is so scary, people become afraid of having another attack. The fear of fear develops and Panic Disorder takes hold of you. The good news is there are effective psychological treatments for Panic Disorder. This blog explains what a panic attack is by looking at the symptoms of a panic attack, possible causes of panic attacks and how to get help for panic attacks.


What is a Panic Attack?

A panic attack is a short burst of extreme anxiety, that peaks within a short time and typically only lasts for 10 to 20 minutes. During a panic attack, the fight-or-flight response is activated causing a range of intense physical sensations. Because this reaction often appears to occur “out-of-the-blue” and there is no reasonable explanation for this reaction, the anxiety symptoms are misinterpreted as “something must be seriously wrong with me, either physically (e.g., “I”m having a heart attack“) or mentally (e.g., “I’m going crazy”). This catastrophic misinterpretation of physical sensations causes more anxiety and fear, leading to more physical symptoms, and more fear. This is known as the cycle of panic.


Symptoms of a Panic Attack

During a panic attack you may experience some of these symptoms:

  1. Heart palpitations, racing or pounding heart
  2. Sweating
  3. Trembling or shaking
  4. Sensations of shortness of breath
  5. Feeling of choking
  6. Nausea or abdominal distress
  7. Feeling dizzy, unsteady or light headed
  8. Numbness or tingling sensations
  9. Chills or hot flushes
  10. Fear of going crazy or losing control
  11. Fear of dying
  12. Strong urge to flee the situation


Why Me? Risk Factors for Panic Attacks

Whilst it is not always known why panic attacks occur, research has shown that people who have experienced panic attacks are more likely to have had the following:

  1. Recent stressors related to physical well-being such as negative experiences with illicit or prescription drugs, disease, or death
  2. History of health-related issues such as asthma
  3. Smokers
  4. History of childhood abuse
  5. Sensitivity or “dislike” of anxiety sensations
  6. Family history of anxiety (i.e., genetic predisposition).

Any of these risk factors can lead people to be more susceptible to developing panic disorder. For those with health or drug-related histories a hyperawareness of physical sensations in the body develops; couple this with fears or concerns around physical health, and/or stress, and we have the perfect ingredients for a panic attack.


But how do I know if it is anxiety or something more serious?

It is always best to speak to your GP about your panic attacks. In some instances, an underlying medical condition could be a triggering factor for your panic attacks. Your GP can treat any underlying medical conditions and refer you to a psychologist for treatment for panic attacks. Your treating team can help you differentiate between sensations associated with a medical condition and sensations associated with anxiety.


How are panic attacks treated?

Whilst experiencing panic attacks can be a very terrifying experience, the good news is that there are effective psychological treatments for panic attacks. Treatment with a psychologist will typically involve education on panic attacks, learning what triggers your panic attacks, learning behavioural strategies to manage the physical sensations of panic attacks, learning cognitive strategies to challenge fearful beliefs about your symptoms, and with these new coping strategies, exposure to feared sensations and situations in order to become more comfortable with the sensations of anxiety.


When to seek help?

Some people may only ever have one panic attack and not have another, whilst others (7% of the population) may experience repeated panic attacks and develop panic disorder. If you find that your panic attacks are interfering with your life (e.g., school, work, relationships, or life in general), then this is a good indicator to seek help.

If you would like to consult with a CBT Professionals psychologist about your panic attacks, please download our Referral Fact Sheet here and take it with you to a long appointment with your GP. Your GP can then assess if there are any underlying medical conditions that may be contributing to your panic attacks, and if needed, make out a referral for you to see a psychologist.

A great, easy to read, self help book for sufferers of panic attacks is “Living with IT: A survivors guide to panic attacks” by Bev Aisbett – available from online bookstores and the Apple iBook Store.


Written by Dr. Karen Gallaty , principal clinical psychologist at the CBT Professionals psychology clinic on the Gold Coast. CBT Professionals are a team of clinical psychologists on the Gold Coast with offices in Coomera and Nerang. Gold Coast CBT psychologists offer services to adults, children, and couples.


Disclaimer: Content on this website is provided for education and information purposes only and is not intended to replace advise from your doctor or registered health professional. Readers are urged to consult their registered practitioner for diagnosis and treatment for their medical concerns.

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