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What is a panic attack and what should you do if you have one?

What are the symptoms of a panic attack?

A panic attack occurs when the body goes into a flight or fight response, even when there isn’t any immediate threat. According to the Australian Psychological Society, there will be at least four of the following symptoms[1]:

  • heart palpitations, or racing/pounding heart
  • shaking or trembling
  • shortness of breath or a feeling of choking
  • chest pain or discomfort
  • nausea or abdominal upset
  • chills or heat sensations/sweats
  • dizziness, light-headedness, or feeling faint or unsteady
  • numbness or tingling sensations
  • derealisation (feelings of unreality) or depersonalisation (feelings of being detached from oneself
  • fear of losing control
  • fear of dying.

Although the panic attack may only last a few minutes, they may leave you feeling emotionally and physically exhausted for hours. You may also feel fearful about getting another one.


What causes panic attacks?

There isn’t one cause of panic attacks but it’s believed people who have a first-degree relative with panic disorder might be more susceptible[2].

Some people’s bodies may make them more vulnerable to panic attacks[3]. For example, their fear circuitry in their brain may be oversensitive, or they may have higher sensitivity to bodily sensations and misinterpret these signs as being life threatening.

Panic attacks can be expected (an identifiable trigger) or unexpected (no clear identifiable trigger).

Some triggers include:

  • a stressful life event or ongoing worries such as a divorce, job loss or death of someone you’re close to
  • witnessing a traumatic event either in childhood or adulthood
  • relationship issues or conflict
  • intense physical exercise
  • living with an illness or having chronic health issues
  • a sudden change in environment.


What is the difference between a panic attack and panic disorder?

Many people have one or two panic attacks during a stressful time and then don’t have another one. However, if you have recurring, unexpected panic attacks, you may have a panic disorder.

In Australia, approximately 5% of people will experience a panic disorder within their lifetime[4].


What should you do if you have a panic attack?

Your first step is to seek medical help, particularly if you aren’t sure whether your symptoms are a panic attack or something else. Contact 000 if you think it’s an emergency.

If you’re sure it’s a panic attack, remind yourself that although what you’re feeling is frightening and uncomfortable, it will pass. Try to take deep breaths, count backwards from 100, or distract yourself by focusing on what is going on around you.

Longer term, you can try some preventative self-help strategies including breathing techniques and physical exercise to reduce your anxiety and stress, and adjusting your routine to make healthy lifestyle choices.

If panic attacks are affecting your day-to-day life, it’s important to get help. Speak to your GP to understand whether your panic attack symptoms could be related to an undiagnosed condition. They will also help you understand if your panic attack is anxiety based and they may refer you to a psychologist or psychiatrist for psychological or medical treatments.


If you’ve recently experienced a panic attack and need to talk about it, we can help. Our CAREinMIND counsellors are available 24/7 on 1300 096 269 or click the floating chat button on the right. The service is free for people in north, western and central Melbourne and is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.




[2] Schumacher J, Kristensen AS, Wendland JR, et alThe genetics of panic disorderJournal of Medical Genetics 2011;48:361-368


[4] Australian Bureau of Statistics, National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing: Summary of Results 2007