What is a panic attack?

A panic attack is a sudden rush of intense anxiety. Panic attacks can be triggered by a scary or overwhelming experience, and can also occur for no apparent reason. They can feel so scary that we might start to worry about the prospect of having more panic attacks.

The symptoms of a panic attack are associated with activation of the body's fight-or-flight response. Symptoms usually peak and pass fairly quickly, however our thoughts and beliefs about panic attacks can increase the intensity and duration of the panic attack. Common symptoms include:

  • Feeling dizzy or light-headed

  • Breathlessness

  • Feelings of choking

  • Pounding heart or increased heart rate

  • Chest pain or tightness

  • Nausea

  • Feeling ‘detached’ from yourself

  • Tingling or numbness

  • Chills or hot flushes

  • Tense muscles

  • Sweating

  • Worrying that you're having a heart attack

  • Fear of dying

  • Fear of losing control/going 'crazy'

  • Trembling or shaking

The Fight-or-Flight Response

The fight-or-flight response is the body’s natural reaction to perceived or actual threat or danger. The response involves a series of physiological reactions that help us to survive dangerous situations by getting us ready to fight or flee. Our heart beats faster, we breathe in more oxygen, and we become hyper-alert to movements and sounds in the environment. This response is critical to our survival and ability to face or escape threats.

In prehistoric times, threats tended to be physical, like facing off with a sabre tooth tiger or another tribe. However modern threats can also include less physical things like financial stress (e.g. debt), social situations (e.g. public speaking), sickness (e.g a global pandemic), or even the thought of having a panic attack.

If our fight-or flight system becomes over-activated, we may experience single or even recurring panic attacks, which can be very scary and disruptive to our life.

The Panic Cycle

Panic attacks can be extremely uncomfortable and frightening. Unsurprisingly, many people who experience panic attacks start to worry that something is seriously wrong, and worry about having more panic attacks. This type of thinking tends to further activate the fight-or-flight response, which actually increases the chance of experiencing another panic attack.

Many people also start to engage in behaviours that help them feel safe. This might be like making sure they are always near an exit, or carrying a phone in case they need help. People might also start avoiding places, things or people that seem to trigger a panic attack.

Although these safety and avoidance behaviours can reduce anxiety in the short-term, they actually reinforce the fear of panic attacks and decrease our confidence in our capacity to cope. This can keep us a stuck in a vicious and escalating cycle of heightened anxiety, which increases the chance of having more panic attacks. Some people experiencing severe or frequent panic attacks may go on to develop Panic Disorder or Agoraphobia.

What to do if you Experience Panic Attacks

Some of the most helpful ways to manage panic attacks in the moment involve finding healthy ways to calm our fight-or-flight response, such as calm breathing, grounding techniques, and healthy self-talk. In the longer term people also benefit from:

  • Learning how to tolerate the uncomfortable feelings that go along with panic attacks;

  • Overcoming the fear of having panic attacks;

  • Identifying and eliminating safety behaviours; and

  • Gradually facing activities, people or places they have been avoiding for fear of triggering a panic attack.

Professional support, and in particular Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), can be very effective in helping people learn to manage panic attacks and lead a more satisfying life again.

While the symptoms of a panic attack are not harmful, it is worth being assessed by a qualified health professional to confirm that the symptoms are a result of anxiety and not caused by something else. If you think you may be suffering from panic attacks, visit your local GP or contact Sonder for support.


If you have any questions or need extra support, we're here to help you anytime in any language. Simply start a chat with us via the home screen of the Sonder app.

Information Sources: This Way Up and Beyond Blue

Image credit: Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash

All content is created and published for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. Always seek the guidance of a qualified health professional.

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