Experiencing a panic attack involves feeling a sudden and intense sensation of fear. You may feel that you have lost control and are desperate to get out of the situation that has triggered your anxiety. Symptoms of a panic attack include:

  • Rapid breathing.
  • Feeling breathless.
  • Sweating.
  • Feeling very hot or cold.
  • Feeling sick.
  • Feeling faint or dizzy.
  • Tingling fingers.
  • Shivering or shaking.
  • Racing heart or irregular heartbeat (palpitations).

The problem may get worse if over-breathing sets in as this triggers sensations such as confusion, cramps, pains and feelings of weakness. The symptoms of a severe panic attack can be similar to a heart attack and someone experiencing one may be convinced they are going to die.

For someone who experiences panic attacks, an activity that other people consider simple or ordinary may seem insurmountable.

People who regularly experience panic attacks can be helped by learning to breathe calmly when an attack feels near. An acute panic attack often subsides if you breathe in and out into a paper bag. This allows you to re-breathe your own carbon dioxide, allowing the acidity in the blood that is upset by over-breathing to return to normal. This removes many of the strange sensations that panic causes.

For some people, just knowing that their panic is caused by a vicious circle of fear and physical sensations can help break the cycle. Talking treatments, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, can help you re-frame the meanings you attribute to changes in your body. For example, by recognising that a fast pulse could be due to running upstairs or drinking too much coffee, prevents misinterpreting symptoms in a catastrophic way (e.g. I’m going to die, or I’m going to faint).

This kind of rethinking is achieved through in vivo demonstrations by the therapist as well as practising the assigned activities at home.