Panic Attacks: Causes, Signs & How to Cope

A panic attack is an intense wave of fear and anxiety that strikes you out of the blue and without any warning. It is overwhelming to the point of being nearly crippling and lasts anything from five to thirty minutes. You can’t breathe, your heartbeat goes crazy, the room spins. You feel like you might throw up. In ten minutes it’s all over, but you are left feeling shaken and exhausted.


What causes panic attacks

Panic attacks can sometimes be a one-time thing, but most people will face multiple occurrences. Repeat panic attacks usually get associated with specific triggers – for instance, if a person has social anxiety, then a public speaking appointment might trigger a panic attack. Susceptibility to panic attacks also increases when a person is going through a major life transition or a stressful phase in life e.g. move from college to working life, move to a new city, a loss of a loved one, job change, divorce, marriage, etc. Panic attacks can also be caused by certain medical conditions like hyperthyroidism, medication withdrawal, low blood sugar etc. And lastly, doctors also believe that the tendency for panic attacks can run in families.


Signs of a panic attack

  • Hyperventilation or shortness of breath
  • A feeling of being choked
  • Heart palpitations
  • Sweating
  • Pain or discomfort in the chest
  • Feeling dizzy or detached from your surroundings
  • Nausea
  • Trembling
  • Fear of losing control or going crazy
  • Abdominal cramps or upset stomach

The symptoms can be so intense that sometimes the sufferer winds up visiting a doctor, not knowing whether it is a panic attack or a heart attack.

How to cope with a panic attack

  • Breathe slowly and deeply. This halts the “fight or flight” response of the body and brings down the stress levels. Focus on your breath.
  • If you find your thoughts spinning out of control and stressing you to a point where a panic attack is bound to happen, push back. Fight back the thoughts with a positive thought.
  • If a situation is getting too stressful, allow yourself time to step out for a bit and calm down.
  • Download some calming music on your phone and listen to it whenever stress levels build up. Sounds of water can be especially soothing.
  • Learn and practice some relaxation techniques. Anxiety causes the body to tense up, so make a conscious effort to relax your muscles one by one. Do a short meditation for the mind.
  • Splash some cold water on your face. This is a surprisingly fast way of relieving stress. Follow this up with a brisk five-minute walk to burn off some of the nervous energy.


How to help someone having a panic attack

  • Stay calm and non-judgemental. Do not tell them to calm down.
  • Get them to focus on their breathing, and once you have their attention, get them to do deep breathing along with you for some time. Find a quiet place if possible.
  • To distract them from their anxiety, talk to them soothingly about something they like. Or, ask them to describe something they see around them right now.
  • Physical activity will help in dissolving some of the stress. Get them to swing their arms, or stamp their feet.
  • Once the panic attack has passed, encourage them to speak about it and understand the cause. If it is a recurring issue, nudge them to get help.


Further reading on Panic Attacks


You might also like to read:

A for Anxiety

The Importance of Being Content


6 thoughts on “Panic Attacks: Causes, Signs & How to Cope”

  1. I have never experienced panic attack myself. However had a cousin who has this. She being younger to me by two years, while growing up, I found it difficult to handle the situation when she had panic attack. Whenever going out with her, I used to pray that she should not get one. Now when I look back, I think I could have been of good use to her had I known the ways to help her (as mentioned by you in this post) out of the situation.

  2. I am prone to panic attacks. And I experienced a big episode. Felt helpless. Especially since people around me ignored it when I said that I am not feeling well. So so important this post is. Thanks for writing it. My takeaways: Do: Splash some cold water on your face. This is a surprisingly fast way of relieving stress. Don’t: Stay calm and non-judgemental. Do not tell them to calm down.

    1. Unfortunately Ashwini, to a person who has never experienced a panic attack, it’s probably hard to understand. This is where the importance of spreading awareness and generating empathy comes in

  3. Panic attacks are sudden, intense surges of fear, panic, or anxiety. If you’ve experienced a panic attack, you know that they can be overwhelming and come on quickly. If you fear having another, or feel one coming on now… Time to take a deep breath. A topic very close to my heart. Lavender is known for being soothing and stress-relieving. It can help your body relax. If you know you’re prone to panic attacks, keep some lavender essential oil on hand and put some on your forearms when you experience a panic attack. Breathe in the scent. You can also try drinking lavender or chamomile tea. Both are relaxing and soothing – This has helped me a lot.

    1. Thanks Romila. I’ve tried chamomile tea and it’s very effective. Will try lavender too. Yes, panic attacks can be quite overwhelming.

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