What is a panic attack? How to spot the signs and be able to tackle it

Panic attacks can occur unexpectedly, or be triggered by a specific situation. But whatever the cause, it’s important to know that the symptoms can be treated

Panic attack
A panic attack can come unexpectedly

Panic attacks can come on suddenly and be very frightening. But it’s important to know that the panic attacks themselves aren’t life-threatening, and the symptoms won’t harm you.

They may happen unexpectedly, or could be triggered by a specific situation. Although they can be frightening and significantly affect your life, treatment can be very effective.

Debra Longsdale, Therapy Services Director at the Priory Group, speaking on behalf of leading free global mental health app My Possible Self, explained: “Often manifesting as flashbacks and nightmares of what you have experienced they are extremely common and can be disturbingly vivid, resulting from your body having difficulty processing the event in a healthy way. Panic attacks can be very distressing and mean that you may continue to relive the event again and again until you seek appropriate psychological treatment.”

Here we take a closer look at what a panic attack is, how to spot the signs and how treatment can help someone tackle it.

What is a panic attack?

According to the NHS, a panic attack, or panic disorder, is an “anxiety disorder where you regularly have sudden attacks of panic or fear”.

Everyone may experience feelings of anxiety and panic at certain times, because this is the body’s natural response to stressful or dangerous situations.

However, the NHS states that “someone with panic disorder has feelings of anxiety, stress and panic regularly and at any time, often for no apparent reason”.

What are the symptoms of a panic attack?

Talk to someone you trust


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A panic attack will inevitably feel different for different people. But during a panic attack, the symptoms can build up very quickly.

According to Mental Healt h Charity Mind, symptoms can include:

  • a pounding or racing heartbeat
  • feeling faint, dizzy or light-headed
  • feeling very hot or very cold
  • sweating, trembling or shaking
  • nausea (feeling sick)
  • pain in your chest or abdomen
  • struggling to breathe or feeling like you’re choking
  • feeling like your legs are shaky or are turning to jelly
  • feeling disconnected from your mind, body or surroundings, which are types of dissociation

A panic attack might feel different to different people


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Mind also notes that during a panic attack you might feel very afraid that you’re:

  • losing control
  • going to faint
  • having a heart attack
  • going to die

What causes a panic attack?

Because everyone experiences anxiety in different ways, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what causes them.

It may be that there are several reasons why someone might experience a panic attack.

Mind lists some reasons why someone might experience a panic attack on its website:

past or childhood experiences

your current life situation

physical and mental health problems

drugs and medication

How to deal with panic attacks

Living with anxiety and panic attacks can be very difficult, but Mind lists several ways you can help manage it.

During a panic attack, it may help to:

  • Focus your breathing – Try concentrating on breathing in and our while counting to five
  • Stamp on the spot – This may help control your breathing
  • Focus on your senses – You could focus on the flavour of your chewing gum, or feel something soft
  • Try grounding techniques – This may help you feel more in control

If you’ve already had a panic attack its important to pay attention to what your body needs.

  • For example, you may need to rest or eat or drink something.
  • You could also try talking to someone you trust.
  • Treatment for panic attacks

Another thing you could do is to try the My Possible Self App, which, which is a free NHS endorsed global mental health app which provides holistic and engaging tools to the support and improve the mental wellbeing of all.

Debra Longsdale, Therapy Services Director at the Priory Group, speaking on behalf of leading free global mental health app My Possible Self explains: “Seeking help if you think you are experiencing panic attacks is really important, and the My Possible Self app is a great tool to help if you have the signs and symptoms of panic attacks. The ‘Overcoming my anxiety series’ is designed to help you rate your symptoms, to understand more about anxiety, and provides tools to help you manage your symptoms.”

To find out more about the My Possible Self App visit

Mind’s helplines can also provide more information and support by phone on 0300 123 3393 or email

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