Panic attacks- a scary but treatable health problem

Panic attacks- a scary but treatable health problem

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Panic attacks- symptoms and treatment

What is a panic attack?

  • A panic attack is an intense episode of fear and anxiety, when there is no danger present.
  • A person going through a panic attack will often have a very real sense that they are about to die, and severe physical symptoms are usually triggered.
  • Whether you suffer from panic attacks yourself, or witness someone else going through one, understanding what is happening can allow you to deal with the situation more effectively.
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panic attack

What are the symptoms of a panic attack?

Panic attacks tend to strike for no obvious reason. Some people get them occasionally, others may get them on a daily basis. The following symptoms may occur:

  • A racing or pounding heart
  • A sense of terror or fear that you are about to die
  • A fear of losing control
  • Sweating and hot flushes
  • Shaking and trembling
  • A dry mouth
  • Shortness of breath or a feeling of tightness in your chest or throat
  • Chest pain
  • Abdominal pain
  • Light-headedness and faintness
  • Headache
  • Tingling in the hands
  • A sense of “unreality”- that your surroundings are not real



How long do panic attacks last?

Panic attacks generally last up to 10 minutes, though a person may have some ongoing symptoms for a little longer. It’s common to feel drained and exhausted afterwards.

What is panic disorder?

  • This is when a person has repeated panic attacks.
  • The ongoing fear of having a panic attack can trigger further panic attacks.
  • A person may start to avoid certain situations and places, affecting their personal, social and work life.
  • They may also tend to worry that there is some serious undiagnosed physical cause (for example, a heart problem), even if all check-ups and tests have been normal.


How common are panic attacks?

It’s thought that around 40% of people will have a panic attack at some point in their life.

What causes panic attacks?

It seems that the body suddenly goes into “fight or flight” mode, though it’s not clear why.

There are some factors that may contribute, including:

  • Recent major changes in your life- e.g. a relationship breakdown
  • Stress- such as death or illness of a close relative or friend
  • Trauma- such as an accident or assault
  • Family history- it may be genetic- a mum, dad or sibling may suffer from them too
  • A childhood history of sexual or physical abuse
  • A tendency to hyperventilate (breathe too quickly)
  • Female gender- panic attacks are more common in women
  • Too much caffeine
  • Extreme physical exertion


panic attack

Are any tests needed for panic attacks?

If you have symptoms of panic attacks, your doctor will usually want to rule out physical causes. There are several medical conditions which can be quite similar to panic attacks, including:

  • Hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid)
  • Superventricular Tachycardia (SVT) or other cardiac arrhythmias
  • Anaemia (a low blood count)
  • Asthma
  • A side effect of medication, caffeine or recreational drugs

A history, examination and tests  may be recommended to rule out these conditions.

Are there any complications of panic attacks?

Whilst panic attacks themselves are not dangerous, they can have a major impact on a person’s quality of life. People with panic disorder are also at a higher risk of depression, alcohol and drug abuse, and suicide- so it’s very important to seek medical attention and get appropriate treatment.

What is the treatment for panic attacks?

One of the most simple and effective approaches is to slow your breathing down- with deep slow breaths in and out. Many of the symptoms of a panic attack are cause by hyperventilation (breathing too quickly)- if you control your breathing, many of these physical symptoms will improve.

There are several types of treatment to prevent panic attacks- if you are having repeated symptoms, you should make an appointment to see your doctor and get more information about your options which include:


a psychologist or psychotherapist can help you to manage your symptoms in a variety of ways. CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) has been shown to be very effective- research suggests that 70-90% of people with panic disorder will be free of attacks following 2 years of regular CBT, and many people will see results within just a few months of treatment. Breathing techniques, biofeedback therapy and other relaxation techniques may also help. Your doctor may be able to refer you for assessment and treatment.

Lifestyle changes

  • Get enough sleep
  • Exercise regularly
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol and recreational drugs.


  • In the short term, your doctor may prescribe anxiolytics (benzodiazepines such as Diazepam a.k.a.Valium), as these can settle an attack. However, they do not prevent further attacks, and will not solve the underlying issues. They are not recommended for long term treatment as they have a lot of negative side effects, and can be very addictive.
  • Antidepressant type medications may be prescribed to prevent attacks. These are not addictive. In some cases, they may be recommended in conjunction with CBT.

If you are concerned about panic attacks, be sure to speak to your GP, as getting the correct treatment can help you live and function normally once again.

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About the Author:

Aifric Boylan
Originally from Ireland, Dr Boylan is an experienced GP based in Melbourne. She is also committed to innovation in the area of online medicine and health technology. Aifric is a keen distance runner, and plays the violin, but not at the same time…

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