A panic attack is an episode of intense anxiety and fear that causes physical symptoms. A panic attack can occur when your flight-of-fight response is triggered, but you aren’t in immediate physical danger. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, up to 40% of the population will experience a panic attack at some point in their lifetime.
What does a panic attack feel like?
A panic attack can be very frightening, particularly if you don’t know what is happening to you. You may feel completely overwhelmed and are likely to experience some of the following symptoms:
- Accelerated heart rate
- Excessive sweating
- Tight chest
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Feeling light-headed or dizzy
- Stomach in knots or nausea
- Fear of dying or losing control
- Feelings of detachment
When you have a panic attack, the symptoms feel very intense. A panic attack can last from a few minutes up to half an hour. The intensity of an attack usually peaks in ten minutes and then it starts to subside.
What can cause a panic attack to happen?
Panic attacks can occur at any time. You may be in a calm state or already anxious when it happens. The exact causes of a panic attack aren’t clear, but it may include:
- Ongoing stress
- A traumatic event that has caused acute stress
- A physical illness
- Intensive exercise
Is a panic attack the same as anxiety?
One difference between a panic attack and anxiety is how long your symptoms last. Anxiety tends to be short-lived and is caused by a specific stressful situation (e.g. you are about to give a presentation) and once the stressor goes away so does the anxiety. Panic attacks appear to happen out of the blue and aren’t necessarily triggered by a specific stressor. Panic attacks are also much more intense than feeling anxious.
What is a panic disorder?
A panic disorder is when someone has recurring panic attacks that are disabling. These panic attacks happen at unexpected times and the person worries for at least a month about another one returning. People with a panic disorder may significantly change their behaviour to avoid having a panic attack. Around 5% of Australians will experience a panic disorder. Having a panic attack does not mean you have a panic disorder.
If you are experiencing panic attacks, you can get help. Speak to your doctor or call one of our Suicide Call Back Service counsellors on 1300 659 467.
If it is an emergency dial 000.