What is a panic attack?
A panic attack is a sudden and intense feeling of fear and anxiety. It can happen quite suddenly and feel overwhelming or scary.
When you are having a panic attack, your body can react in different ways. You might:
feel out of breath, start breathing really quickly or find it harder to breathe
feel light-headed, like you might faint
find lights a lot brighter and more intense
experience your heart beating really fast
sweat more than usual
have wobbly legs
have pains in your chest
be teary, or feel like you can’t stop crying
feel stuck, like you can’t move
have stomach cramps
You might feel a few of these symptoms at the same time or have a different reaction. Everyone experiences panic attacks differently and your feelings are valid. During a panic attack, you might also feel like you can’t control what’s happening to your body, or feel out of touch with what’s going on around you. You might feel scared that your body is in danger or feel like you’re having a heart attack.
Although this can feel very frightening, it’s important to know that a panic attack won’t cause you any harm. Even if you don’t feel it during an attack, try to remember you are in control and the feeling will pass.
Why might I have a panic attack?
A panic attack can happen at any time or place, and because it can happen quite quickly, it might feel unexpected.
Because a panic attack is an intense feeling of fear and anxiety, it often happens if you are feeling very anxious about something happening in your life, or you have experienced something difficult or stressful. This might be:
a difficult situation at home that is making you anxious
a frightening experience like abuse, or neglect
feeling stressed about things like exams, work, friendships or relationships
if you have lost a friend or family member
if you are being bullied
anxiety around school, college, university or work
There are many reasons why you might feel anxious and have a panic attack. Everyone has different experiences and that’s okay. Sometimes, it might feel like there is no clear reason why you are having a panic attack.
What’s important is to try and understand what you might be feeling anxious or stressed about, and what types of situations or places can cause you to have panic attacks.
By knowing your triggers, you can start to think about what you can do in those situations to cope, or talk to someone about how you can deal with those feelings in that situation or place.
Sometimes, we might find it easier to avoid a situation or place that makes us anxious. It’s very understandable that we would want to do this, but in the long term, avoiding situations can make the anxiety feel bigger. The goal is not to find a way to always avoid situations that make us anxious, but to learn to cope with how we are feeling in those situations.
The first step to doing this is to talk to someone you trust, like a friend, family member, teacher or GP. They can help you understand what you are experiencing and help you find the support you need.
What to do if you're having a panic attack
During a panic attack, you may feel like you are losing control, but there are things you can do to feel back in control, or feel ‘grounded’ again.
Concentrate on your breathing
Focus on breathing in slowly, then breathing out slowly. It can be helpful to count when you’re breathing to focus your mind. You can start small at first, like counting to three as you breathe in and counting to three as you breathe out. When you begin to calm down, you can increase how long you hold each breath to five seconds or seven seconds.
There are lots of different breathing techniques that you can try. You can use apps like Headspace and Calm to practise breathing exercises, or have a look online and see what works best for you.
Find a safe space
If a situation is making you feel panicked, try and find a space where you can take a moment to breathe and calm your thoughts. If you can’t physically go to a safe space, try visualising yourself somewhere where you feel calm, like on a favourite holiday.
Focus on your senses and surroundings
When you are having a panic attack, you can feel out of touch with things around you. One way you can feel back in touch with your surroundings is by picking out five things you can see, hear, taste, touch, or smell. This is called a grounding exercise. You can pick a couple for each sense, or focus on one sense, like finding five things that you can see. This can help you feel connected with your surroundings and in control.
After you've had a panic attack
Once you feel your breath returning to normal, you start to feel more in control of your body and your thoughts start to calm down, you might feel drained and tired from the panic attack. It can be a good idea to take some time out to look after yourself and rest if you are able to. If you are not sure what to do to relax, here are some things that might help:
Breathing exercises – a simple breathing exercise can have a calming effect and help you to relax
Use a self-soothe box. A self-soothe box contains things that make you feel relaxed. You can put some of your favourite things in there to focus your mind.
Listen to some of your favourite music or watch your favourite TV show. This can help you switch off from your anxious thoughts and help you to calm down.
Drinking some water can help if you were breathing quickly, felt out of breath or were crying a lot during your panic attack, as your throat might feel dry or you may feel dehydrated.
Everyone has a different way of looking after themselves, so find something that works for you.
How to cope with panic attacks
When you have had a panic attack, you might worry about if - or when - you are next going to have one. This can make everyday tasks like going to work, leaving the house or meeting up with friends much more difficult. But remember, you are not alone and there is support available to help you get through this. If you are worried about when you are next going to have a panic attack, here are some things that can help you cope.
Speak to someone you trust. If you are feeling anxious or worried that you might have a panic attack, talk to friends or family. They can help you take your mind off what is making you feel panicked and support you to find the help you need. If you are struggling to say how you are feeling, you can always write your thoughts down or put them in notes on your phone if you are planning to speak to a teacher or your GP.
If you are worried about having a panic attack at work or college, speak to a teacher or a member of staff. They can work with you to help you with things like finding a safe space to take some time out if you are feeling anxious or panicked.
If you feel like you’re struggling to cope with everyday tasks, speak to your GP. They can listen to how you are feeling and suggest different types of treatments like therapy or counselling to help you tackle your panic attacks.
How to help someone who is having a panic attack
If you have a friend or family member who is having a panic attack, here are some tips from our Activists on how you can help them get through it.
Stay with the person. If you can, stay with the person during their panic attack. Just by you being there, you can help them to calm down and remind them that help is available. It is okay if you are finding it overwhelming. You can find another friend, family member or teacher they trust to support your friend and you.
Talk to them and encourage them. You can chat to the person about how they are feeling or anything that they like, such as favourite Netflix shows or their hobbies. This can distract them from their anxious thoughts, helping them to feel calm and to slow down their breathing. They might find it difficult to talk and might want to focus on their breath - that’s okay and it’s important to respect their boundaries and how they are feeling.
Check in with the person. Even though they may no longer be panicking, they can still feel anxious or on edge afterwards. You can check in with them to see how they are feeling. This will remind them that they are not alone and you are there for them.
Talk about how you can support them. If the person feels comfortable to, you can suggest talking about how you can support them in the future. This can be things like helping them find a safe space or finding breathing exercises that can help in the moment. This will help them feel better about coping with panic attacks.
Where to get help
See below a list of organisations and helpline services that have information to support you.
Provides information, support and advice for anyone struggling with anxiety. Live chat service available. Phone: 03444 775 774 Text: 07537 416 905 Email: email@example.com Opening times: 9.30am-5.30pm, Monday-Friday
Supports people struggling with panic attacks, phobias, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and other anxiety-related issues. Offers a specialist youth helpline for people aged 13-20. The opening hours are 3pm - 6pm, Monday - Friday; 6pm - 8pm, Thursdays and Saturdays. Call 01952 680835 for a recorded breathing exercise to help you through a panic attack (available 24/7). Information about call costs here. Phone: 0300 772 9844 Phone: 0330 606 1174 (Youth helpline) Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Opening times: 10am - 10pm, 365 days a year
YoungMinds Crisis Messenger
Provides free, 24/7 text support for young people across the UK experiencing a mental health crisis. All texts are answered by trained volunteers, with support from experienced clinical supervisors. Texts are free from EE, O2, Vodafone, 3, Virgin Mobile, BT Mobile, GiffGaff, Tesco Mobile and Telecom Plus. Texts can be anonymous, but if the volunteer believes you are at immediate risk of harm, they may share your details with people who can provide support. Text: YM to 85258 Opening times: 24/7