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  • Writer's pictureDean Cranney

How to Recognize and Manage Panic Attacks

Panic attacks are sudden and intense episodes of fear and discomfort that can occur without warning. They often involve physical symptoms such as a racing heart, shortness of breath, and dizziness, as well as psychological symptoms like a fear of losing control or impending doom. Understanding how to recognize panic attacks and knowing what to do when they occur is crucial for managing these overwhelming experiences effectively.


Person experiencing a panic attack
A person experiencing a panic attack

What is a Panic Attack?


Panic attacks are sudden episodes of intense fear that trigger severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause. They can be extremely frightening, with individuals often feeling as if they are losing control, having a heart attack, or even dying. The exact cause of panic attacks is not fully understood, but several factors, including genetics, stress, and certain changes in brain function, may play a role.


Common Symptoms


Panic attacks manifest through a combination of physical and psychological symptoms. Recognizing these symptoms can help in identifying a panic attack when it occurs.


Infographic of panic attack symptoms
Common Symptoms of Panic Attacks

Physical Symptoms

        •        Rapid heartbeat or palpitations

        •        Sweating

        •        Trembling or shaking

        •        Shortness of breath or hyperventilation

        •        Chills or hot flashes

        •        Nausea or abdominal distress

        •        Dizziness or lightheadedness

        •        Tingling sensations or numbness


Psychological Symptoms


        •        Intense fear of losing control or going crazy

        •        Fear of dying

        •        Feeling detached from reality (derealization)

        •        Feeling detached from oneself (depersonalization)


Recognizing Panic Attacks


Differentiating panic attacks from other conditions is essential for proper management. Panic attacks can sometimes be mistaken for heart attacks due to the similarity in symptoms, such as chest pain and shortness of breath. However, panic attacks usually peak within 10 minutes and subside shortly after, whereas heart attacks involve more prolonged pain and other symptoms like jaw pain and left arm pain.


Immediate Steps to Take


Illustration of breathing exercises for panic attacks
Breathing Techniques for Panic Attacks

When experiencing a panic attack, or helping someone else, immediate steps can be taken to alleviate symptoms.


Breathing Techniques- Practicing controlled breathing can help reduce the intensity of a panic attack. Slow, deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth can calm the nervous system.


Grounding Exercises- Grounding exercises can help redirect focus away from the panic attack. Techniques include focusing on physical sensations, such as feeling the texture of an object or the ground beneath your feet, or identifying objects around you to stay present.


Helping Someone Else- If you are with someone experiencing a panic attack, there are ways to provide support and comfort.


Staying Calm- Your calm presence can have a soothing effect. Speak in a gentle, reassuring voice, and encourage slow, deep breaths.


Providing Reassurance- Remind the person that the panic attack will pass and that they are not in any real danger. Offer to stay with them until it subsides.


Long-Term Strategies


Managing panic attacks often requires long-term strategies to reduce their frequency and severity.


Therapy Options- Therapies such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) have been proven effective in treating panic attacks. CBT helps individuals identify and change negative thought patterns that contribute to panic attacks.


Lifestyle Changes- Incorporating regular exercise, a balanced diet, and adequate sleep can improve overall mental health and reduce the likelihood of panic attacks.


Medical Treatments- In some cases, medical treatments may be necessary to manage panic attacks.


Medication- Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications can help reduce the frequency and severity of panic attacks. It is important to discuss these options with a healthcare provider to determine the best course of action.


Cognitive Behavioral Therapy- CBT is a structured therapy that focuses on identifying and changing maladaptive thought patterns and behaviors. It is highly effective in treating panic disorder and preventing future panic attacks.


Self-Help Techniques- There are several self-help techniques that can complement professional treatment.


Mindfulness- Practicing mindfulness meditation can help individuals stay present and reduce anxiety. Mindfulness involves focusing on the present moment without judgment.


Regular Exercise- Physical activity can reduce anxiety and improve mood. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise most days of the week.


Preventive Measures- Preventing panic attacks involves identifying triggers and managing stress effectively.


Identifying Triggers- Keeping a journal of panic attacks can help identify patterns and triggers. Common triggers include stress, caffeine, and certain situations.


Stress Management- Techniques such as yoga, meditation, and deep-breathing exercises can help manage stress and reduce the likelihood of panic attacks.


Person comforting another during a panic attack
How to Help Someone Having a Panic Attack

Myths and Misconceptions


There are several myths and misconceptions about panic attacks that need to be addressed.


Common Myths

  •  Panic attacks are not serious: Panic attacks can be debilitating and significantly impact an individual’s quality of life.

  • Panic attacks are always triggered by stress: While stress is a common trigger, panic attacks can occur without any obvious cause.

  • Panic attacks are a sign of weakness: Panic attacks are a medical condition and not a reflection of personal strength or character.

  • Panic attacks will go away on their own: While some individuals may experience a reduction in frequency, others may need long-term management strategies and professional help.


Foods That Help

  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Found in fish, flaxseeds, and walnuts, these can help reduce anxiety.

  • Magnesium-Rich Foods: Leafy greens, nuts, and seeds can support nervous system function.

  • Herbal Teas: Chamomile and green tea have calming properties.


Foods to Avoid

  • Caffeine: Can trigger anxiety and panic attacks.

  • Sugar: High sugar intake can cause fluctuations in blood sugar levels, leading to anxiety.

  • Processed Foods: Often high in additives that can impact mood and anxiety levels.


Smartphone with a mental health app
Apps for Managing Panic Attack

Frequently Asked Questions


What triggers panic attacks?

Panic attacks can be triggered by stress, certain situations, or occur without any apparent reason. Identifying personal triggers can help in managing them.


How long do panic attacks last?

Panic attacks typically peak within 10 minutes and can last up to 30 minutes, although some symptoms may persist longer.


Can panic attacks be cured?

While there is no definitive cure, panic attacks can be effectively managed through therapy, medication, and lifestyle changes.


Are panic attacks dangerous?

Panic attacks themselves are not life-threatening, but they can significantly impact quality of life. Seeking treatment is important for managing symptoms.


Can lifestyle changes help with panic attacks?

Yes, regular exercise, a balanced diet, and stress management techniques can reduce the frequency and severity of panic attacks.


When should I seek professional help for panic attacks?

If panic attacks are frequent, severe, or affecting your daily life, it is important to seek help from a mental health professional.




Panic attacks can be overwhelming, but understanding how to recognize and manage them is crucial for improving quality of life. By utilizing immediate and long-term strategies, seeking professional help, and leveraging support networks, individuals can effectively navigate the challenges of panic attacks. Education and awareness are key to reducing stigma and providing support to those affected. With the right tools and resources, managing panic attacks becomes a feasible and empowering journey.


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