How to tell whether you've had a panic attack

Susannah Hickling 24 April 2019

Have you ever had that sudden rush of anxiety, along with a racing heart, shortness of breath and maybe other symptoms such as dizziness or ringing in your ears?

…if so, it’s likely you’ve had a panic attack. Panic attacks can be terrifying, with sufferers often believing they’re having a heart attack. But be reassured that they’re usually over within 15 minutes and don’t do you any physical harm. They happen when your body goes into “fight or flight” mode, with your body trying to take in more oxygen, breathing more quickly and releasing hormones, such as adrenaline, which make your heart beat faster and your muscles tense.

Of course, it’s always worth checking there’s no physical cause, especially if your attack doesn’t subside, you feel ill afterwards or have chest pains. If everything seems normal, then your attacks could be triggered by PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) or an anxiety disorder. Or it also may be that other people in your family have them.

The good news is, there are things you can do to prevent your panic attacks or make them less scary. First of all, try to understand that they’re harmless and will go away. This is easier if you’ve had one before. Then, at the first sign of a panic surge, you could try breathing exercises, counting objects around you or imagining yourself in a place where you feel calm and happy.

Or give this easy three-minute meditation exercise a go. First, check on how you’re feeling right now. Then, focus on your breathing. Finally, start to think about your environment. This should distract you and calm you down.

Making a few changes could help too. Think about limiting alcohol, because it’s not unheard of to have a panic attack the day after a “session”. And don’t overdo the caffeine.

It’s also important to get plenty of sleep and exercise. If you still need help, psychological therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy may be worthwhile. You can refer yourself without going to your GP.