A panic attack is a sudden increase in anxiety. Usually heart rate increases and breathing becomes faster and shallower. Dizziness, shakiness, nausea, stomach churning, dry mouth, and tingling are all common in a panic attack. If you do not realise you are having a panic attack you may think that something awful is happening to your body, for example a heart attack.
There is often a feeling of losing control of mind and/or body and sometimes a sense of unreality. There may be a fear that something terrible is about to happen (or is already happening) and an understandable urge to find safety, for example sit down, find fresh air, drink water, have a companion, seek medical help, etc. Often there is no obvious cause to the onset of a panic attack and this can make it all the more terrifying.
However, it seems that the body is just doing what it has been designed to do in order to respond to danger and, in fact, having an occasional panic attack is very common. Getting over-concerned about having a panic attack may be one of the things that actually makes the problem worse.
The specific symptoms experienced can vary from one attack to the other, and from one person to another.
Panic disorder may be diagnosed if panic attacks are happening quite frequently.
Sometimes people very understandably start avoiding places and situations where they think they are more likely to have a panic attack, or where it would be embarrassing or more difficult to cope if they did have one. This can develop into agoraphobia, which is characterised by a fear of leaving the safety of one’s house. This in turn can seriously restrict their ability to lead a normal life.
You can read more about panic attacks, panic disorder, and agoraphobia, along with advice on dealing with them at the Centre for Anxiety Disorders and Trauma website (CADAT).
IAPT services offer talking therapies for panic, panic attacks, and agoraphobia that have been recommended by the National Institute for Clinical Exellence (NICE). This means they have been researched and have evidence to support them. You can read what NICE recommend for Panic Disorder here.