Approximately 2.4 million Americans live with a panic disorder, and panic attacks can be common for some. Panic attacks usually come on very suddenly and can be precipitated by stress or seem to come out of nowhere- when in reality, they’re usually triggered by a memory of a traumatic place or event.

Many people have at least one panic attack in their lifetime, but if the attacks are recurring and the constant fear of having another affects your ability to function, you may have a condition called panic disorder.

Understanding panic attacks

People who have experienced panic attacks worry about having another one. This creates a snowball effect because they’ll avoid places where they’ve had panic attacks, but the avoidance only increases and perpetuates their anxiety.

Although panic attacks are common, there’s a lot of shame associated with having one. It’s often hard to explain what it’s like to have a panic disorder to others, leading to frustration in relationships with family and friends who may not understand why they don’t want to go to certain places or attend particular events.

Panic disorders can also affect professional relationships. The anxiety makes it hard to concentrate on work-related tasks. Since there are still many negative stereotypes associated with panic disorders, many people are afraid to disclose their symptoms for fear of being stigmatized, judged, or even fired.

What happens during a panic attack?

Panic attacks can be intense and overwhelming, both physically and emotionally. Many people who’ve experienced panic attacks say they feel like they’re having a heart attack. Symptoms of a panic attack typically include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Heart palpitations or chest pain
  • Dizziness
  • Tingling sensation or numbness in the extremities
  • Uncontrollable trembling
  • Muscle tension
  • Nausea
  • Feeling of claustrophobia or feeling “trapped”

Most panic attacks last anywhere from five to twenty minutes, and in some cases, can last up to an hour. Some people have attacks very infrequently, while others experience them several times a week.

Tips for managing panic attacks

The first step to effectively managing panic attacks is identifying triggers and planning out strategies to get through the episodes when they occur.

Panic attacks are typically not dangerous, although the physical symptoms can feel severe, which leads people to avoid places they know may trigger an attack.

If fear of having a panic attack in public keeps you from doing things that you want or need to do, one technique for managing is to write down the worst things that could occur during a panic attack and then plan a way to cope if it does happen. For example, if you’re afraid to go out because you’re worried about having no one to help you through a potential panic attack, plan to take someone you trust with you. Suppose you’re afraid of being stuck somewhere in the middle of a panic attack, scope out places before, and plan where you can make a hasty exit if you feel a panic attack coming on.

If you can’t find an easy exit, it’s always a good idea to get to the most private, safe space you can find and focus on breathing when an attack occurs. Another helpful technique is to find a focus object. Pick any single item nearby and focus all of your attention on it, noting all the details about it. Concentrating hard on something besides the panic attack will help slow down your heart rate and breathing and help bring you back to baseline faster.

What to do if someone you know has a panic attack

If you’re with someone who is experiencing a panic attack, there are several ways that you can help them through it. The most important thing to remember is to keep calm yourself.

Stay with the person and ask what they need. If they typically take medication during an attack, offer it to them. Reassure them that you’re not going anywhere (unless they’ve specifically asked to be left alone). Help control their breathing by counting to ten slowly or doing deep breathing exercises with them.


Treatment for panic attacks looks different for everyone. Most people can be treated with a combination of medication and therapy. When the attacks are left untreated, a person is likely to develop conditions such as agoraphobia, where they are unable to leave their house because their anxiety is so severe.

Studies have shown that people who don’t receive treatment for their panic attacks may be at risk for individuals who do not receive treatment for recurrent panic attacks may be more at risk for :

  • Substance abuse
  • Co-dependent relationships
  • Health issues
  • Suicidal ideation

If you or someone you love experiences panic attacks that affect their ability to function at home or in the community, contact Serene Health today to speak to one of our therapists from the comfort of your own home via our unique Telehealth app. We offer evening and weekend appointments. Call us at (855) 256-5517 or visit our website to schedule an appointment today.

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