Young woman recovering from a panic attack

What does a panic attack feel like?

What is a panic attack? A panic attack is an episode of strong negative feelings characterised by intense fear and dread. The feelings can seem overwhelming and are often so vivid that they have physical symptoms. A panic attack can also occur for no obvious reason. You don’t have to be subjected to intense stress or difficulty to experience a panic attack — it could happen unexpectedly, such as when driving or watching sport.

You may know someone who has panic attacks or you may even experience them yourself. Two out of every five people will have a panic attack during their lifetime and five per cent of the population experiences them regularly as part of a panic disorder.


What are common panic attack symptoms?

A panic attack can feel intensely unpleasant and frightening, especially if it’s something you’re not used to. A panic attack will usually have vivid physical signs. One of the more distressing symptoms of a panic attack is the way these physical symptoms can seem like physical health problems like asthma or heart attack. Some people experiencing panic attacks report that they feel like they were “going crazy” or felt like they were “about to die”. These feelings further compound the fear and dread of a panic attack.

No two people experience panic attacks in exactly the same way. However, here are some of the most common panic attack signs and symptoms.

  • Intense feelings of dread, fear and anxiety.
  • Feeling like you “can’t think straight” or “can’t handle” the situation.
  • Sharp increase in your heart rate. Feeling like you heart is ‘thumping’ or ‘galloping’.
  • Intense sweating, even if you’re not feeling warm.
  • A tight feeling in your chest.
  • A chilling sensation descending over your body.
  • Shortness of breath, a choking or smothering feeling, or feeling like you can’t inhale enough air.
  • Shaking or trembling that you can’t control, especially in your hands or feet.
  • Feeling faint, dizzy or light-headed.
  • ‘Butterflies’ in your stomach, nausea, or a feeling like you’re going to vomit.
  • Feeling surreal, distant or detached.


What causes panic attacks?

The precise causes of panic attacks are not yet fully understood. However, there are several factors which are thought to contribute to the likelihood of someone experiencing a panic attack. They can include some of the following.

  • A family history of panic attacks.
  • Prolonged or major stress, such as family break-up or loss of a loved one.
  • Experiencing traumatic events.
  • Prolonged or serious or illness.
  • Excessive use of stimulants like caffeine.
  • Drug use.


How long does a panic attack last?

A panic attack, or rather the signs of a panic attack, often happen unexpectedly and quickly. The negative feelings will usually be at their most intense within ten minutes, before usually subsiding within half an hour.

Although the symptoms will pass, the effects of a panic attack can be deeply distressing. They can leave you shaken and worried that they may occur again.


What is the difference between a panic attack and anxiety?

A panic attack and anxiety may feel like they’re the same thing. However, they are different in a number of ways.

Panic attacks usually occur suddenly and unexpectedly. They are characterised by intense and overwhelming fear, often accompanied by distressing physical symptoms. A panic attack can occur seemingly ‘out of nowhere’ which makes it even more distressing.

Anxiety is often associated with one or more difficult situations going on in your life. It will likely be a combination of things, usually associated with stress. Underlying causes might be a hard time at work or a perceived lack of control, trauma, relationship difficulties, prolonged or chronic illness, money trouble, or even positive but nonetheless stressful events like marriage or births.

The negative feelings of anxiety can be prolonged and recurring (e.g. you keep feeling that way before or during certain situations). This in turn makes anxiety different to nervousness, which is a natural response to a stressful situation (e.g. a job interview, public speaking, a social event with strangers, etc.) but which goes away.


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

A panic attack and panic disorders are closely related. Generally speaking, a panic disorder is when someone experiences regular panic attacks. As mentioned previously, it is thought that five per cent of the population have a panic disorder, whereas an estimate 40 per cent of the population experienced a panic attack during their lifetime.

A panic disorder can adversely affect and interfere with quality of life. For example, people with a panic disorder may go to great lengths to avoid social, work or public situations for fear of ‘having an attack’.


How to stop a panic attack?

You may not be able to prevent a panic attack from occurring. However, there are things you can do to help you work through the distress and regain your sense of calm and control. Here are some techniques that can be beneficial.

  • Start breathing slowly and deeply. Keep inhaling through the nose and exhale through your mouth.
  • Try self-talk. Recognise that how you feel is the result of negative feelings rather than a life-threatening situation.
  • If you can calm yourself enough, try a mindfulness or meditation technique.
  • Focus on the present. Try to think about your immediate surroundings, rather than the fear of what could happen later.
  • Pick out something of interest (a pet, a moving vehicle outside your window, counting bricks or tiles, etc.) and focus on that.
  • Take your mind off the situation by doing dishes, playing a game on your phone or watching a video.
  • If you’re able, try being physically active, whether it’s going for a brisk walk or getting changed into gym gear and doing exercise.


Getting help for panic attacks

If you find that you experience regular panic attacks then it’s a good idea to talk to your GP or a health professional. They can help you find ways to manage your feelings and advise on how to deal with unpleasant emotions. A GP can also do a physical examination to determine if your panic attacks are related to an illness like asthma, heart problems or diabetes.

A counsellor or psychologist can also help you manage panic attacks by helping you develop coping techniques. These strategies can help you identify and challenge thoughts and behaviours that can cause feelings of panic, such as self-monitoring and relaxation techniques.


Need help? You can find support services in northern Queensland or complete a self-administered K10 test for depression and anxiety. You can also join the online mental health forum to talk with like-minded people.