These attacks of severe anxiety can feel terrifying – and really limit your life. But help is out there. We look at why panic attacks happen – and what you can do to manage them

Panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder that involves recurring panic attacks. We all know what it’s like to experience feel panicky from time to time. But when you have panic disorder, you may have intense panic attacks on a regular basis, seemingly out of the blue.  

What does a panic attack feel like?

In short, very frightening. It can last anywhere between five and 20 minutes, or possibly even longer. Some of the symptoms you experience may include:

  • A racing heart
  • Feeling faint or dizzy
  • Sweating
  • A tight chest or chest pain
  • Trembling limbs
  • Going hot or cold
  • Nausea
  • A choking sensation
  • A dry mouth
  • A feeling of dread, often described as a sense of impending doom
  • Ringing in your ears

Although these symptoms can feel very scary, panic attacks aren’t physically dangerous. However, if you experience these symptoms you should always see your doctor. They can be signs of another condition so it’s important to get checked out. 

How panic disorder develops

Many people have an isolated panic attack in their lifetime, often during a period of extreme stress, such as bereavement. But sometimes, panic disorder can set in. You interpret the symptoms of a panic attack as dangerous (for example, palpitations are seen as evidence of a heart attack), which leads to more anxiety.  This can result in a vicious cycle. Basically, you fear the fear itself – and that can lead to recurring panic attacks. It’s a bit like insomnia, when the worry about not sleeping is the very thing that keeps you awake. You may begin to limit your life in order to avoid having another panic attack – for example, if you had a panic attack on public transport, you may decide to stop using it. This can feel like an answer at first but it rarely works in the long term and is likely to worsen anxiety as well as restricting your life.

How to manage panic attacks

There isn’t a ‘cure’ as such but it’s important to get help if you’re affected. Don’t hesitate, as the sooner you tackle the issue, the easier it’s likely to be to help yourself.

  1. See your doctor, who can refer you for cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which helps change the way you think about anxiety symptoms, so you can respond to them in a different way. You’ll be shown how to manage feelings of panic so they don’t mount up. 
  1. Take regular exercise – this helps your body deal with stress and anxiety and may help protect against panic attacks. A raft of research shows activity outdoors, in green areas, is particularly helpful for anxiety, but do whatever works for you.
  1. Beat bad habits. Smoking, alcohol and caffeine can all contribute to anxiety so try to reduce or cut these out entirely.
  1. Have a balanced lifestyle. Steps such as a making sure you have plenty of sleep and a healthy diet, full of fresh fruit and veg, really count. While a balanced lifestyle won’t be the whole answer, it will help support your body and mind to deal with anxiety. 
  1. Breathe in. Breathing exercises are likely to be a key part of your therapy but you can try them yourself at any time. Focusing on the breath is a simple and very effective way to manage panic. Try inhaling deep into your abdomen and making the exhale slightly longer than the breath in. You can find lots of breathing exercises for anxiety online.