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Understanding Panic Attacks: Why They Occur and How to Cope



By: Marie Miguel Biography

The experience of having a panic attack can be incredibly frightening. At times, the unpleasant physical symptoms can be so intense that it resembles a heart attack or another medical crisis. Identifying a panic attack when it begins and understanding what is happening in your body can help you to better cope in those moments. In this article we will discuss the signs and symptoms of a panic attack, why they happen, and strategies for managing when a panic attack hits.


Recognizing the Signs of a Panic Attack


A panic attack involves more than having anxious thoughts. It is a sudden episode of intense fear that is accompanied by physical symptoms such as:


  • Racing/pounding heart
  • Heart palpitations
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea or gastrointestinal discomfort
  • Dizziness or feeling faint
  • Sweating or chills
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Fear of losing control or dying


While these symptoms may occur regularly when an individual has chronic anxiety, what distinguishes a panic attack is the intensity of the symptoms. After reaching their peak in about ten minutes, symptoms generally begin to subside. It is possible for panic symptoms to emerge unexpectedly without a clear cause, as well as in situations that spur fear.


For more information about panic attacks, visit BetterHelp.


Why Do Panic Attacks Occur?


Researchers are continuing to study exactly what causes panic attacks. During a panic attack, one’s body is reacting due to the fight or flight response. This is the way an individual is wired to respond in the face of a perceived threat, helping them to prepare to either confront or flee from danger. However in the case of a panic attack, this physiological response activates even in the absence of any real danger. 


Some people experience a panic attack once and never again. Others may experience them in specific situations that cause intense fear or stress, such as public speaking. For other individuals, panic attacks may happen on an ongoing basis, even with no clear cause. Recurring panic attacks, accompanied by a fear of when the next attack might occur, may be indicative of a mental health condition known as panic disorder.


There is not a clear consensus on what causes panic disorder. However, several factors that may make an individual more susceptible to developing it include family history of the condition or other anxiety disorders, brain structure, and stressful life events. Some experts believe that people with panic disorder may have a higher sensitivity towards certain body sensations or hormones.


It is important to note that panic attacks can occur as a part of another mental health condition as well. For example, a person living with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) may experience a panic attack if they are unable to carry out a compulsive behavior in order to neutralize their anxiety. Someone with Social Anxiety Disorder may regularly have a panic attack prior to having to give a presentation at work or attend a social engagement.


Managing Panic Attacks


There are various strategies that can be helpful for managing panic attacks, including:


  • Acknowledge: Simply naming that what you are experiencing is a panic attack can be very helpful. Try repeating a mantra to yourself, such as ‘This is a panic attack; it’s happened before,’ or ‘I am safe.’ Despite how unpleasant the physical sensations can be, remind yourself that a panic attack is uncomfortable, but not dangerous- and it will pass.


  • Focus on your breathing: It is common to hyperventilate during a panic attack. Try a breathing technique, such as lengthening your exhales or deep belly breathing in order to regain control of your breath- which can reduce symptoms of panic.

  • Try a grounding technique: The 5-4-3-2-1 technique involves identifying five things you hear, four things you can touch, three things you hear, two things you can smell and one thing you taste. This is a helpful strategy for reconnecting with the present moment.

  • A calming activity: You might try an activity that you find soothing whether spending time with a pet, listening to music, or coloring. Maybe you reach out to a friend or family member who can be there to support you and remind you that you will be okay and get through this.


If you are experiencing frequent panic attacks that are impacting your daily functioning, consider reaching out to a mental health professional. They can help to determine if what you are experiencing might indicate the presence of an anxiety disorder, and connect you with the appropriate treatment- which may look like psychotherapy and/or medication. It is essential for people experiencing recurrent panic attacks to know that they are not alone, and there is help and support available.

Marie Miguel Biography

Marie Miguel has been a writing and research expert for nearly a decade, covering a variety of health- related topics. Currently, she is contributing to the expansion and growth of a free online mental health resource with With an interest and dedication to addressing stigmas associated with mental health, she continues to specifically target subjects related to anxiety and depression.

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