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How to Understand and Survive Panic Attacks

Updated on September 11, 2012
The artist's symbolic representation of a panic attack.
The artist's symbolic representation of a panic attack. | Source

Panic Attacks

Have you ever suffered from a panic attack?

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Anxiety & Panic Disorders - statistics

National Health Service UK
1 in 20 people will suffer from anxiety disorder.
National Institute for Mental Health USA
20% of Americans are affected by anxiety disorder.
Centre for Emotional Health - Australia
Approximately 14% of the population suffer from anxiety disorder.
Canadian Mental Health Association
1 in every 10 suffers from some form of anxiety disorder.
As we can see, anxiety disorders are prevalent in many countries. A large number of these people will experience panic attacks as a symptom of severe anxiety.

If you have gone through the experience of a panic attack then you are not alone. Thousands of people experience panic or anxiety attacks on a daily basis. For some it is a one off incident. However, for others attacks happen often and may have developed into panic disorder or some another anxiety disorder.

If you look at the statistics displayed on the table, you will see just how many people are going through exactly the same as you. So don't feel ashamed. Don't feel that you are abnormal or weak. People who suffer panic attacks are normal and are only experiencing common body reactions. The difference is that in a panic attack normal body reactions are aroused to a much higher level and on occasion with no apparent trigger.

What is described as panic attacks can be many things to different people. However, one thing that is true for all is that they are a very unpleasant experience. Nevertheless, even although people may think that they can't be controlled, there are things that can be done to alleviate these episodes.

One of the first steps to lessen panic attacks is through knowledge and understanding. Once you know why they are happening and why you experience what you do, then they lose the power to overwhelm you.

What is a panic attack?

A panic attack is the sudden onset of extreme fear often with no apprent trigger or cause. The feelings that are felt by the sufferer vary from person to person but they are very intense. Attacks can last from a couple of minutes up to approximately 20 minutes.

The symptoms are numerous and not all will be felt by each person but those listed below are some of the most common:

Physical Symptoms

  • Severe sensation of being unable to breath or choking, difficulty breathing, unable to swallow.
  • Lightheaded or feeling faint
  • Racing heart, heart skipping a beat or alternatively a very slow heart beat.
  • Chest pains
  • Sweating/hot flushes or sometimes the opposite - feeling chills
  • Shaking/trembling.
  • Pale and/or clammy skin
  • Profuse sweating
  • Blurred vision
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Nausea or pains in the stomach. diarrhoea and othe gastric symptoms
  • Feeling numb or tingling in the toes and/or fingers.

Emotional Symptoms

  • Severe sensation of terror.
  • An extreme fear that you are losing control of everything and/or that you will die.
  • The overwhelming fear of panic attacks returning at a future time.

From this list we can see that panic attacks are a combination of both physical responses and emotional/psychological reactions. They are not separate, but each is triggered and perpetuated by the other. We'll take a look briefly at the physical symptoms and why they happen and then look at the emotional side of panic attacks.

Even when relaxing, panic attacks can strike at any time.
Even when relaxing, panic attacks can strike at any time. | Source
Panic attacks can strike at any age.
Panic attacks can strike at any age. | Source

Understanding the physical symptoms of a panic attack

Let's look at how your body is responding to the onset of a panic attack. Firstly though, remember that there is nothing abnormal about how the body is responding - these are all natural reactions but happening at the wrong time and to an excessive degree. This often happens when people have a very stressful situation to deal with or have had stress building up over a long period of time.

Physical Symptoms

  • Severe sensations of being unable to breath or choking or smothering - due to tension. The tensing up of muscles also includes those of the diaphragm the main muscles that aid in breathing. In addition these symptoms are also caused by nerve impulses firing. They are not dangerous and nothing bad will happen because you feel like this. You also have adrenaline rushing through your body adding to these physical sensations.
  • Difficulty swallowing or choking is due to tension in the neck muscles restricting the wind pipe and the proper medical term is Globus Hystericus. It's not a pleasant sensation at all but it is harmless. It does not stop air getting into your lungs, you won't suffocate.
  • Rapid heart beat, palpitations, chest pain. The rapid heart beat is due to the surge of adrenaline in the blood stream. Adrenaline prepares and gives the body a huge burst of energy in order to face danger or run from it. This is called the 'flight or fight response'. To read more on this subject I recommend hubber A.Kirchner's excellent hub:
  • Light headed or feeling faint. Again this is due to tension, leading to rapid breathing/hyperventilating. This causes less oxygen in the blood stream and body systems. In addition adrenaline surging through the body will also add to these physical feelings.
  • Sweating/hot flushes or sometimes the opposite - feeling chills. This is a perfectly normal reaction when anyone is nervous, anxious, frightened. Sweating is part of the 'fight or flight' response. When the body is coping with fear it assumes you may have to run away. It will therefore produce sweat in order to keep you cool and reduce friction on the skin while you make your escape from perceived danger.
  • Shaking/trembling - this also due to tension but also to a build of adrenaline in the blood stream.
  • Nausea or pains in the stomach - these are also due in the main to tension of the powerful diaphragm muscles and could also be the result of adrenaline.
  • Pale and/or clammy skin. When the body is in this intense state all blood is taken from less vital areas of the body - such as the skin - and re-routed to essential areas such as the heart, brain, lungs and muscles. This leaves the skin paler than usual.
  • Blurred vision, ringing in the ears etc. These can be caused by tension and also adrenaline rushing through the body.
  • Feeling numb or tingling in the toes and/or fingers. Tension leads to stiffening of muscles and contraction of blood vessels into these areas. This leads to numbing or tingling sensations and again adrenaline can cause these feelings.

Adrenaline released from the adrenal glands causes many of the physical feelings during a panic attack.
Adrenaline released from the adrenal glands causes many of the physical feelings during a panic attack. | Source

Do you use any personal techniques to help you cope with panic attacks?

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Triggers that can lead to panic attacks

Low blood suggar (hypoglycaemia)
Poor diet, losing weight, fasting
Digestive problems
Food allergies are a possible cause
Too much or even withdrawal
Due to the stimulant chemicals
Medications - including abusive substances
As a side effect or withdrawal
Due to the actions of breathing too fast, this can bring on panic attacks
Brain Function
Chemical imbalances in the brain

Understanding the emotional symptoms of a panic attack

Emotional Symptoms

  • Severe sensation of terror.
  • An extreme fear that you are losing control of everything and/or that you will die.
  • The overwhelming fear of panic attacks returning at a future time.

We'll now look at the emotional side of a panic attack and work through what is being experienced here. But before we do that, you need to remember that tension, fear and anxiety are all normal things to feel. If we didn't feel fear or anxiety then we wouldn't survive long. We need these natural reactions to alert us to danger and to keep us safe.

What panic attacks do is to escalate these normal sensations and emotions to a level that is excessive.Why the body goes into this state is not fully understood especially as panic attacks can strike unexpectedly with no obvious trigger. However, as horrible a sensation as a panic attack is, it will pass and you will survive. What's more there are many things you can do in the short and long term to alleviate attacks and perhaps even stop them from returning. However, if you have frequent panic attacks and/or panic attacks that have returned over a number of years, then this could be a sign of a more complicated problem that needs medical intervention. Repeated attacks could be an indicator of:

  • Panic disorder or anxiety disorder. Panic disorder is having frequent panic attacks that can affect every day living such as shopping, working, socialising and so on. Anxiety disorder or generalised anxiety disorder is experiencing high levels of worry and stress every day without any specific cause.
  • Women are more likely to have a panic attack than men
  • Personality type - people who have a more anxious type of personality are more prone to developing anxiety disorders and having panic attacks.
  • Family history and family environment has been related to panic attacks later on in life. For example children with anxious parents and/or a child who has a parent who suffers from anxiety disorder are more likely to have panic attacks when an adult.
  • Life events. There is some research to show that major life changes can be the trigger for developing anxiety disorders. Major changes such as job loss, bereavement, financial crisis, divorce and other happenings can all trigger off anxiety disorder.

In addition to possibly being pre-disposed to suffering panic attacks the reason that terror, fear and anxiety are felt is due to the high stress levels that are already present in your life. Particularly if you have anxiety constantly over a long period of time, your body becomes hypersensitive to the environment and learns to react to situations that are not life threatening. In addition to this there could also be specific triggers to panic attacks such as:

  • People with a phobia could suffer a panic attack on being confronted with their phobia
  • Psychological trauma can lead to panic attacks if the person is reminded of the trauma or finds themselves in a similar situation to the trauma.
  • Being put into a situation where the person suddenly finds this frightening can lead to a panic attack. For example, I once saw a young lady having a severe panic attack as she was about get onto a roller coaster for the first time. I also witnessed another lady having a panic attack at a zoo when she went into the reptile house and saw snakes. Why these types of fears trigger panic attacks is still a mystery that medical science is trying to solve. The mind is so complicated that it will probably take years to understand all the factors involved in panic attacks.

However, despite all this there are many things that people can do to alleviate and get themselves through a panic attack. There are documented cases of people using techniques to cope with panic attacks that have led to them being totally free of these distressing situations.

A simple design such as this easy mandala can focus the mind on relaxing during a panic attack.
A simple design such as this easy mandala can focus the mind on relaxing during a panic attack. | Source

Top tips on how to survive a panic attack

There are numerous methods you can use to not only survive your panic attack but also reduce the severity and perhaps even stop them all together. If you are however taking frequent panic attacks then you do need to speak to a doctor. It is likely that some form of medication may be required at least initially in order to bring the attacks under control. In addition people who suffer frequent episodes of panic have often developed panic or anxiety disorder. These are a group of anxiety and stress related illnesses that need specialised treatment from your doctor and other specialists. However, there is still no reason why you can't try some of the tips below to see what ones suit you best. Anyone can chose one or more and mix them together. The choice is yours.

There are some links at the end of the hub to look up for examples of the tips given below.

  1. Breathing and general relaxation exercises - relaxes, focuses away from panic, balances air entering and leaving your body so reducing symptoms.
  2. Breathing into a paper bag (not plastic). When in a panic attack this causes the carbon dioxide levels in the blood to fall making you feel much worse. Breathing into a paper bag rapidly increases the Co2 levels and within a few seconds the symptoms do reduce. Breathing into a paper bag also helps to relax you by focusing your mind and regulating your breathing rhythm.
  3. Meditation - relaxes, focuses the mind to be positive, visualisation can help to cure panic attacks.
  4. Affirmations - these simple sentences re-programme the mind into positive thinking. Don't be fooled because of their simplicity. Affirmations can be very powerful.
  5. Self help work sheets and self help programmes - free to use and/or download from numerous websites.
  6. Other therapies for longer term relaxation and stress reduction - writing exercises such as keeping a journal, diary. Art and music therapy. Yoga.


  • Panic attacks are normal body responses but on a higher gear. When an attack happens you are getting enough air to breath and it's impossible for you to suffocate. Nothing bad will happen during or after the attack.
  • See your panic attack as an opportunity to explore and find out what it is in life you need or require to make you feel yourself again and go for it.
  • You are not alone - millions of people know exactly how you feel.
  • Don't be ashamed or feel inferior - you're not. You're a normal human being that needs a helping hand to get over this present hurdle.


Submit a Comment

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    6 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi tokowinfo, many thanks for the lovely compliment. Coming from a writer of your caliber this means a lot to me! Best wishes, and once again - thank you!

  • toknowinfo profile image


    6 years ago

    Excellent, excellent hub. You did a wonderful job explaining the info about panic attacks. I especially liked the way you divided it into the sections. Your chart on triggers was very good. This all made for easy reading on an indepth topic. Great job! Voted up, awesome, interesting, and useful.

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    6 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Gypsy, I'm relieved that I've never suffered from these distressing episodes - seeing someone else go through them was bad enough!! Hope this helps some folks out there with their attacks and that they know that there is something they can do to relieve this horrible experience.

  • Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

    Gypsy Rose Lee 

    6 years ago from Riga, Latvia

    Thanks for this very informative and interesting hub. Have had panic attacks and never want to experience that again. I truly believe the Lord keeps me on track now. They are frightening. Lots of super information. Passing this on.

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    6 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi mperrottet, many thanks as always for stopping by and glad that you enjoyed the hub. I hope this will be of benefit to someone out there who has being going through these terrible ordeals.

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    6 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hey Hi Eddy!!! Hope things are well with you - have you published any more books of poems yet?? I was saying to Rosemay that I have a lot of catching up to do on Hub Pages as this summer has just been a nightmare!

    Anyway, glad that you enjoyed the hub and it was great to hear from you!!

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    6 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hello catgypsy, many thanks for stopping by and glad that you found the hub useful - especially as you say that you suffer from anxiety yourself. Thank you!!

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    6 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Kitty, as always its lovely to hear from you and for sharing your thoughts. That's interesing what you say because I am that way as well. However, I found out by reading Elaine Aaron's book - Highly Sensitve Person - that rather than being a worrier or nervous, the HSP folks just have a very highly tuned nervous system that filters about triple more than the general population. This can leave you exhausted, frazzled, needing to be alone - except with animals as they tend to sooth. HSP's are also worriers, very sensitive in a spiritual sense and many are funnily enough nurses. So have a look at websites on this topic Kitty and perhaps it might point you in the right direction.

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    6 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hello Juli-Ann Amos, many thanks for stopping by and glad that you enjoyed the hub. If even just one person gets benefits from the article then I'll be very happy.

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    6 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi KT, lovely to hear from you and thank you for sharing your experiences.

    If this hub can help just one person then I'll be very happy. Having seen one of my younger sisters and a very good friend having panic attacks I know how distressing and frightening they are to watch, so I can only imagine what they are like to feel. As with yourself, my sister and Sue, my friend didn't tell anyone except very close family/friends and were both ashamed. However, when a new doctor came to our local practice who had an interest in anxiety disorders this made so much difference to both of them, to know that they weren't abnormal, they weren't weak or nuts, just ordinary people having extraordinary epsiodes - albeit terrifying. When they learned more about them and I did as well so that I could help them, then, as you say, it did make so much difference in their lives. Sue is free and my sister hasn't had any for a few years now.

    Thank you so much for sharing your experiences - never an easy thing to do - and I'm sure your comment will also help so many people out there who are suffering with this.

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    6 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Frank you do it to me every time - you are one amazing guy!!! What you have said about the 'mind game' is actually spot on. If people who suffer from panic attacks realise that the mind is so much more powerful than body responses then they will get through these horrible situations. In addition, these attacks - going from a friend's personal experience - are often triggered by things that do affect the mind, such as bereavement. Sue lost her husband suddenly a few years back and started having panic attacks about a month later. So, although the people involved are defiantely not weak or simple, it is the mind that triggers the attacks, but the mind can also stop them! Many thanks again Frank, I love to read your comments as they are always either very funny, very refreshing, very wise - and often all three!!!

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    6 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Rosemay - how's my favourite poet doing? I'll need to pop by and get reading some of your hubs very soon - sorry for being absent, it's just been so hectic at home this summer with one thing after another!!! Anyway, glad that you enjoyed the hub and if it helps just one person out of these horrible situations, then I will be very happy indeed!

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    6 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Lesley, always lovely to hear from you.

    I have seen a few people go through these attacks and it's very distressing to watch so heaven knows what it must be like to go through one! And yes, I do think that if people realise that they're not alone with this or in anyway abnormal, then it is a huge step in helping them to fight back.

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    6 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Robwrite - glad you found the hub useful!

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    6 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi ChitranagadaSharan, lovely to hear from you and glad that you enjoyed the hub. Many thanks for stopping by.

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    6 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Heather, lovely to hear from you and I'm glad that the hub was interesting. I honestly do think that if there is anything that scares you, then find out as much as you can and it does most of the time work. I think the old saying that 'ignorance is bliss' is not always true, especially in relation to these dreadful attacks.

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    6 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi denise, lovely to hear from you. That's interesting about your attacks being very similar to asthma attacks. My sister is asthmatic and when her inhalers don't work too well - which thankfully is not often - then she can go into what is very like a panic attack. It's horrible to see her like that, but she can usually now calm herself down quite quickly - normally it's the paper bag trick.

    That's brilliant that you are off medication and a huge boost for anyone who suffers from these distressing and frightening attacks.

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    6 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Graham, always a pleasure to hear from you.

    Thankfully I haven't either, but I do have a very good friend who does and what a horrible time they gave her. To meet her you wouldn't think that she was anything other than a fairly confident and very intelligent woman, but they strike at all ages and all types of people. I'm glad that she doesn't suffer from them anymore. I think the trigger for her, was when she lost her husband suddenly in a car accident a few years back.

  • mperrottet profile image

    Margaret Perrottet 

    6 years ago from San Antonio, FL

    This is an excellent review of the subject, and should be of great benefit for those suffering from panic attacks. Voted up, useful and interesting!

  • Eiddwen profile image


    6 years ago from Wales

    A great hub ;interesting and will also benefit many readers.

    Thanks for sharing.


  • catgypsy profile image


    6 years ago from the South

    As someone who has suffered from an anxiety order for most of my life and writes about anxiety often, this is an excellent hub. Very well written and some great information. The video was terrific. Great job!

  • kittythedreamer profile image

    Kitty Fields 

    6 years ago from Summerland

    Very interesting and well laid out. I actually do have an anxiety disorder, I believe. I have extreme amounts of worry on a daily basis...over nothing that I could truly's just there it seems on many days. And then on other days, I could fly I'm so happy and carefree. Very strange feeling. Anywho, awesome hub!

  • Julie-Ann Amos profile image

    Julie-Ann Amos 

    6 years ago from Gloucestershire, UK

    This is a really useful source of information. Thanks very much for this. I'm sure it will come in very useful for people suffering from this debilitating illness.

  • KT Banks profile image

    KT Banks 

    6 years ago from Texas

    I used to be terribly ashamed of anxiety attacks, I was 17 when I had my first one. Back then almost no one had ever heard of it. I didn't have another one until I was in my 30's. Now I don't even know how many - too many to count. When I got a good understanding of them, it helped tremendously. That is why I think it is important to admit it to others. It can happen to anybody.

    The information you shared is remarkable and SO helpful. Thanks for writing this, and for sharing the links above. Voted Up and more!

  • Frank Atanacio profile image

    Frank Atanacio 

    6 years ago from Shelton

    wow I never knew Panic Attacks were a real disorder.. I thought it was just a mind game used by the simple or the weak.. but damn I never felt so wrong thank you for the share and this hub seeker7

  • Rosemay50 profile image

    Rosemary Sadler 

    6 years ago from Hawkes Bay - NewZealand

    A great hub. Useful information and very well researched and set out

    I am sure this is going to help many who suffer with panic attacks.

    You did an awesome job.

    Voting U, A & I

  • Movie Master profile image

    Movie Master 

    6 years ago from United Kingdom

    A panic attack is a very traumatic experience, it certainly helps to know it's very common.

    Your title is perfect for this article, the information and tips certainly help one to understand and hopefully survive panic attacks.

    Thank you and voted up.

  • Robwrite profile image


    6 years ago from Oviedo, FL

    Very useful information.


  • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

    Chitrangada Sharan 

    6 years ago from New Delhi, India

    Awesome hub! You have suggested some very nice ways to deal with panic attacks. Very useful, thanks for sharing.

  • Heather63 profile image

    Heather Adams 

    6 years ago from Connecticut, USA

    Hi Helen - your hub is full of useful stuff! The list of triggers was especially interesting to me. It seems like the more a person knows about a condition the better equipped they are to deal with it. And you've covered this subject really well!

  • denise.w.anderson profile image

    Denise W Anderson 

    6 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

    Excellent information on how panic attacks work and what to do about them. I suffered from attacks that were much like an asthma attack. Counseling and medication helped, but now that I have learned how to breathe better and have lowered the stress level in my life, I am able to be panic attack and medication free!

  • old albion profile image

    Graham Lee 

    6 years ago from Lancashire. England.

    Seeker7. Fortunately I do not suffer from panic attacks. I can appreciate the value of this hub to anyone who does however.

    First class hub.

    Voted up and all



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