A panic attack is your body responding to fear. Generally, panic attacks will occur when your body experiences a sudden onset of intense symptoms. In short, they are an exaggeration of your body’s natural response to excitement, stress or danger.
Panic attacks are very frightening for those experiencing the attack, and the people around them. While a typical panic attack will only last between five and 20 minutes, they can come in waves, for up to two hours. This moment can feel like a lifetime.
Panic attacks tend to end as quickly as they begin, but the thing to remember is that they are not harmful. It is the body’s way of reacting to a situation, despite there being no physical threat.
What is a panic attack?
If you’ve ever been in a situation that causes you to fear for your life, you’ll know what panic feels like. You may have an overwhelming sense of dread, you’ll feel your heart thumping in your chest and you’ll find it hard to catch your breath.
For some people, this feeling and the associated symptoms can happen for no reason, in everyday life. With no physical threat, this rush of psychological and physical symptoms is called a panic attack. While there may be no sign of danger, the body reacts in order to survive. Some people may experience a panic attack suddenly or during a particularly stressful time in their life. Others, however, may have a panic disorder, in which panic attacks and intense anxiety are a common occurrence.
Most people will experience a relatively mild form of anxiety in their lives, usually when facing a particularly stressful situation, like an exam or in an interview. But for some people, anxiety is like a shadow that never leaves. Anxiety disorders can affect a person’s life, making it incredibly difficult to carry out everyday tasks, like going to work, or even leaving the house.
Anxiety is sparked by a fear of something that has happened, what we suspect will happen and what we fear will happen again. But, because it can affect all of us in some way, it can be difficult to recognise when it is becoming a problem.
Anxiety will feel different for each individual and depending on the symptoms you experience, you may be diagnosed with a more specific anxiety disorder, such as:
- generalised anxiety disorder (GAD)
- panic disorder
- social anxiety disorder
What does a panic attack feel like?
When a person has a panic attack, they will experience a sudden and intense feeling of fear. The sensations of a panic attack will vary and what one person experiences, may not be the same for someone else. However, there are common symptoms of panic attacks, including:
- a thumping heart or palpitations
- feeling sick
- sweating or hot flushes
- chest pain or tightness
- shortness of breath
- feeling dizzy
- feeling detached from reality
When a person first experiences a panic attack it can be easily confused with breathing problems or, in severe cases, a heart attack. Feeling this way is, understandably, very overwhelming. People experiencing it will often ‘over breathe’ or hyperventilate, in an attempt to calm down. Unfortunately, this can actually worsen the situation, leading to more side-effects.
According to the NHS, one in 10 people in the UK experiences occasional panic attacks, triggered by a stressful event. Panic disorder is less common, affecting two in 100 people, though it’s thought to be twice as common in women than in men.
Panic attacks typically last between five and 20 minutes, with symptoms being at their worst within 10 minutes. As panic attacks tend to come in waves, you may experience symptoms for up to two hours.
Know that there are ways to cope and manage panic attacks. Focusing on slowing your breathing can help, and remind yourself that the feelings will pass. Of course, this can be easier said than done. If you’re worried, it can help to speak to a professional for support. Your doctor can assess your symptoms, helping you to understand possible causes and whether it is anxiety or panic disorder. Hypnotherapy is another option. Hypnosis for panic attacks aims to understand the causes behind the anxiety and teach you ways to manage them.
The exact causes of anxiety and panic attacks are unknown, though there are a number of environmental and psychological factors involved. For some people, a panic attack may be triggered by a particularly intense, overwhelming or stressful situation (such as the death of a loved one, or an accident), while for others, the cause is less clear.
According to The Royal College of Psychiatrists, there are four factors that may cause anxiety problems; genetics, life experience, circumstance and substance abuse.
Genetics - There are suggestions that some of us are simply born more anxious than our peers. While there is limited research on this, connections have been found between parents with mental health problems and their children.
Life experience - What happens in our lives can have a big impact on our mental health. If we’ve experienced a traumatic event or accident in the past, or even if our current lives are particularly stressful (for example, pregnancy, moving house, divorce and unemployment) our mental health can be compromised.
Circumstance - Sometimes, the cause of anxiety is obvious and when the problem goes away, so do your symptoms. But sometimes, there are things we face which threaten our lives (like a car accident, fire or disaster) that triggers the anxiety. Even if you weren’t physically harmed, the event can leave you feeling anxious for years after. When this kind of anxiety and distress lasts for a long time, it may be post-traumatic stress disorder, and professional support may be needed.
Substance abuse - Anxiety can sometimes be a side effect of caffeine, certain medications and the use of alcohol and recreational drugs.
Visit our fact-sheet for more information on hypnotherapy for drug addiction.
There are cases when the cause is entirely unknown and the panic attacks have started suddenly. If this is the case, you may benefit from hypnotherapy. Hypnosis for panic attacks and anxiety can help you uncover deep-seated concerns that may be subconsciously causing your anxiety.
Panic attack treatment
If you’re experiencing panic attacks regularly, or your anxiety is affecting your daily life and overall well-being, consider speaking to your doctor. They can refer you to a counsellor, or suggest hypnotherapy to help you manage symptoms and learn to cope.
With mental health, it is important to seek help as soon as possible. It can be very isolating when it feels like nobody else understands how you feel, but you’re not alone. Treatment for anxiety and panic attacks aims to help you recognise the onset of an attack and manage it.
Typically, panic attack treatment aims to ease the impact the anxiety and attacks are having on your life, and teach you ways to cope whenever you feel an attack may be triggered. Psychological therapies are common treatment options, and in some cases medication is prescribed. The type of treatment you receive will depend on your personal situation and the severity of your symptoms. You will never be forced into a treatment you aren’t comfortable with.
Psychological intervention may include cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), a counselling technique designed to help you change your negative thoughts and behaviours.
Hypnotherapy for panic attacks
Hypnotherapy is becoming a more recognised method for dealing with anxiety, and so is also thought to be helpful in managing panic attacks. Hypnotherapy for anxiety can help rebuild self-belief and boost confidence, as well as helping to reduce feelings of fear and worry. Hypnotherapy can help you learn and build on the ability to access your calmer state of mind, which is needed to help cope with the overwhelming emotions you are feeling.
Hypnosis for panic attacks is similar to hypnotherapy for anxiety. It aims to access your subconscious and use the power of suggestion to promote positive change. The suggestions used by the hypnotherapist will be tailored to your individual situation; what is causing your panic attacks and why, and working to change the way your body responds to triggers.
Suggestions may include:
- ‘You are in control of this, nothing is going to hurt you’
- ‘Slow your breathing, it will help you feel calm’
- ‘You can get through this, just breathe’
The idea of these suggestions is that when you next feel a panic attack coming on, your subconscious will return to these statements to help you cope.
"I am able to see things differently with the tools hypnotherapy has given me."
- Read Jackie's story
Hypnotherapy for panic attacks can help you regain a sense of control and normality in your life. It can help you understand what may have caused your anxiety, help you recognise signs of the onset of an attack and provide you with tools to manage and overcome the feelings.
Relaxation is also a key part of hypnotherapy. Panic attacks can often cause, or worsen feelings of anxiety, as you fear the next attack, not knowing when it will happen. Hypnotherapy for anxiety can also teach you valuable relaxation techniques, to help reduce your overall stress and worry - lowering your risk of another attack.
Learn more about hypnotherapy for anxiety and what to expect from a session.
During your hypnotherapy sessions, you may be given self-hypnosis techniques to practice at home between sessions and to use long after your sessions have ended. The idea behind these is so that if you ever feel anxious outside of sessions, you can return to these techniques to help you cope and work through the anxious moments.
A common self-hypnosis technique used in panic attack treatment is to create a ‘calm trigger’ for times when you feel anxious. This will typically involve you actioning the relaxation techniques you learnt during hypnotherapy sessions, and picturing yourself in a calm, safe place.
Once you have thought of a safe environment, you can make a physical action, such as pinching a point on your hand or thumb. The idea behind this is that it creates a routine and encourages a calming reaction; when you’re feeling anxious, fearful or worried, you make the physical action and trigger a sensation of calm. This type of action helps to ground you, reminding you that despite your anxiety, nothing is going to harm you.
Preventing attacks and what to do when you have a panic attack
When you’re experiencing a panic attack, the symptoms are very real and it can feel like your life is in danger. Knowing that you are not in any physical danger and that the symptoms you’re feeling aren’t harmful can help when it happens, though we know this isn’t always easy.
Before we explain more about what you can do when you’re experiencing a panic attack, let’s look at how you can prevent attacks.
How to prevent panic attacks
Identifying any stressors that could be making your condition worse is a useful exercise. Of course, there are some situations that are out of our control. But, what’s the one thing that’s always in our control? The way we react to them. Learning how to manage stress can go a long way in helping you manage panic attacks. Here are some other suggestions to prevent panic attacks:
Breathing exercises, relaxation and meditation
When we’re stressed, our bodies go into ‘fight or flight’ mode. This causes us to breathe a lot shallower than we normally do. For many people with anxiety and panic attacks, this is a common state for the body. Breathing shallower can cause physical symptoms, like chest pain and dizziness. These symptoms can be enough to cause us to panic, and for some leads to a full-blown panic attack.
Being more aware of your breathing and actively taking slower, deeper breaths can help reduce this. Regular breathing exercises can help you here. On top of this, you may want to consider relaxation exercises, meditation and self-hypnosis to help lower stress and anxiety levels overall.
Physical activity is another way to help manage stress and anxiety. When we exercise, our bodies produce endorphins (‘happy’ hormones) and this helps to lower stress. If you’re not used to exercising, just starting out with regular walks can help. Being in nature can distract you and encourage relaxation too.
Other forms of exercise that are particularly helpful for reducing stress include swimming, yoga and running.
Avoiding excess sugar, caffeine and alcohol
Eating a balanced diet will help give your body what it needs to be healthy and happy. Certain foods and drinks can exacerbate physical anxiety symptoms - these include too much sugar, caffeine and alcohol.
Try to reduce your caffeine intake and try herbal teas instead. Snack on nuts and fruit instead of biscuits and avoid overindulging with alcohol. This may sound like obvious advice, but we often forget the effect food and drink has on our mental health.
Talking it out
When we keep things to ourselves and bottle worries up, they often end up manifesting as stress and anxiety. Talking to people about how you feel can make a big difference. If you don’t want to talk to your family or friends, you could consider talking to a professional or joining a support group (either in person or online).
If you’re seeing a hypnotherapist as part of your treatment, they will be able to listen to what’s worrying you and use hypnotherapy techniques to help you manage anxiety and panic attacks.
What to do when you have a panic attack
When you’re in the midst of a panic attack, we know how hard it can be to think of anything in particular, but try your best to remember the following points (you can even print this page as a reminder):
- What you’re feeling is very unpleasant, but it is not harmful.
- You have been through this before and you survived. These feelings will pass.
- Focus on your breathing. Breathe in slowly, deeply and gently through your nose and out slowly, deeply and gently through your mouth. Imagine your body relaxing with every outbreath.
- Try to visualise a calm scene (hypnotherapy can help you develop this skill).
- Don’t fight it. Often trying to not have a panic attack makes things worse. Instead, try to ride the wave and know it’ll be over soon.
Advice for friends and family
If someone you care about is experiencing panic attacks, it can be very difficult for you. Especially if you are with them when they have a panic attack, you may not know what to do or what to say to help them calm down.
Here we’ll talk you through some ways you can help them.
Learn more about their condition
Having a better understanding of what it is they’re going through can be immensely helpful for both you and them. Without knowing how anxiety works, it can be difficult to understand why your loved one reacts the way they do in certain situations.
The great news is, you’re in the right place! Being here and reading this shows a great commitment to helping your loved one.
Help them find support
When someone is struggling with anxiety, the idea of reaching out to a professional can feel overwhelming. Offering your support here could help them make this vital step. You could show them the information you’ve read here and see if they want assistance searching for a hypnotherapist, or you could help them make a doctor’s appointment.
Let them know that help is available and that there are several different approaches out there. Avoid pressuring them however and remember, it is ultimately up to them if and when they do seek help. Gentle encouragement and support is key.
What to do when they have a panic attack
If you suspect they are experiencing a panic attack, there are a few things you could try to help. Of course, if you are in any doubt and are worried it could be a physical problem, don’t hesitate to call for medical assistance.
- Try to stay calm yourself and remember, panic attacks cannot harm them.
- Gently remind them that this is a panic attack and that you are there for them.
- Encourage them to focus on their breathing. Try breathing with them - slowly, deeply and gently (over-breathing can make things worse). You can also count out loud or tell them to watch your arm as it moves up and down.
- Get them to engage their physical senses by stamping their feet on the ground.
After the worst part is over, encourage them to sit quietly until they feel better. It may help to play them some calming music too.
Looking after yourself
It can be easy to forget about yourself when someone you care for is struggling, but you know the saying “You cannot pour from an empty cup”? Well, it’s true.
If you stop looking after yourself you will feel tired, stressed and may end up unwell yourself. Ensure you have someone to talk to, include relaxation into your routine and don’t hesitate to seek support yourself.
How to help a child
Children may not understand the complexities of anxiety and panic attacks, so experiencing these issues can be very distressing. If your child experiences a panic attack, there are ways you can help. Below is an article from Happiful magazine that may help:
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