Surviving a Panic Attack


Healthy Living - April 12, 2016
David Prescott, PhD - Acadia Hospital

What Does a Panic Attack Feel Like? The first time most people have a panic, attack, they may think they are having a heart attack, that they are about to die, or that they are going crazy.  It is common to feel like you cannot breathe, and that there is nothing you can do to control what is happening to your mind and your body.  Once a person has had a panic attack, they often go to great lengths to avoid any chance of having another one. 
How Do You Survive a Panic Attack? Panic attacks usually last no longer than 10 or 15 minutes.  As the body’s “flight, fight, or freeze” response mobilizes, the experience is intense, but the body cannot maintain this state of alert for very long.   Tips for surviving a panic attack include:
  • Acknowledge that a panic episode is occurring.  Tell yourself that this is a panic attack and that you will live through it.
  • Try to slow down your breathing, perhaps counting slowly to ten between breaths, doing this over and over.
  • Try to focus on something around you, rather than inside you.
  • If you are with someone you trust, focus on their voice or presence.

What Is a Panic Attack? Almost one in four people (22.7%) experience a panic attack at least once in their life.  About 3% of adults have Panic Disorder (repeated panic episodes) in any one year.  The onset of panic attacks usually occurs during early adult years.  Symptoms of a panic attack include:
•          Sudden onset of intense fear and anxiety.
•          Feeling like you are going to die or have a heart attack.
•          Racing, pounding, or skipping heartbeat
•          Difficulty catching your breath
•          Choking sensation or lump in your throat
•          Excessive sweating
•          Shaking or trembling
•          Feelings of unreality, or being detached from your body
Preventing Panic Attacks
  • Identifying the Triggering Event:  In almost all cases, there is some triggering event to a panic attack.  The events may be easily identified, such as riding in a car; or more general, such as worrying about what your future might hold.  But in almost all cases, identifying the triggering event is the first step towards avoiding a panic attack.
  • Don’t Let a Little Anxiety Worry You: Often, people who have had a previous panic attack react strongly to small increases in anxiety, or physical symptoms which mimic anxiety.  For example, it is common to have your heartbeat increase when you are anxious.  It is important to consider this ‘normal’ rather than as a sign that you are about to have a panic attack. 

Treatment for Panic Disorder:  Both counseling and medication are effective treatment for panic disorder.  Counseling usually focuses on
  • Identifying events, thoughts, or situations which trigger panic attacks.
  • Changing certain patterns of “self-talk” which increase anxiety.
  • Learning a physical relaxation response
For certain people, medications may help reduce or eliminate panic disorder.  Types of medications that may be prescribed include anti-anxiety medications, or a class of antidepressant medications called SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors). 
About 70-90% of people who receive treatment for panic disorder improve relatively quickly.  If you think you may have panic disorder, talk to a mental health professional like a psychologist or psychiatrist, or you can ask your family doctor.  
For More Information:
American Psychological Association:
National Institute of Mental health: