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What is a Panic attack?

A panic attack is a sudden onset of intense anxiety or terror without any obvious threat. These can happen “out of the blue” and can be a very frightening experience due to the intense bodily sensations that occur during a panic attack.

There are usually triggers that induce panic attacks for people because of various reasons that they may interpret as threatening. Here are some common examples of situations where people experience panic attacks:

  • night time
  • Driving
  • School/college classes
  • Big crowds
  • Shops
  • confined spaces
  • worrying
  • ruminating on trauma memories

Panic disorder may be diagnosed when there are recurrent panics that disrupt a person’s life and level of functioning. Once someone has one panic attack they can can fear another will happen which can often lead more panic attacks.

What do panic attacks feel like?

During a panic attack, physical symptoms can build up very quickly. These can usually include 4 or more of these symptoms:

  • a pounding or racing heartbeat
  • feeling faint, dizzy or light-headed
  • feeling hot or cold
  • Pins and needles
  • sweating, trembling or shaking
  • nausea (feeling sick)
  • Chest pain/tightness in your chest
  • struggling to breathe or feeling like you’re choking
  • feeling like your legs are shaky or are turning to jelly
  • feeling disconnected from your mind, body or surroundings, which are types of dissociation.

During a panic attack you might feel very fearful due to the intense nature of these bodily sensations that occur during a panic attack. Consequently, lots of people describe believing that these type of situations will happen:

  • “I am losing control” “I am going crazy”
  • “I can’t breath” – “I will Suffocate”
  • “I am going to faint”/ “I am going to collapse”
  • “I am having a heart attack”
  • “I am going to die”

People may often avoid situations, leave situations or use subtle avoidance strategies i.e. by having somebody with them as a safety mechanism to prevent a panic attack from happening. This can be very debilitating for people as often people miss out in opportunities because of the fear of having a panic attack. Also panic can be accompanied with other anxiety problems or mental health problems such as

  • social anxiety
  • Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) (Excessive Worry)
  • obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • phobias
  • post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Depression

Professional support is often required to determine the correct treatment in order to make a full recovery. CBT is one of the most an evidence based psychological intervention for the treatment for panic.




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