Panic Attacks: Symptoms, Causes & Treatment

Panic Attack

A panic attack is a brief episode of intense anxiety, which causes the physical sensations of fear. Symptoms can include shortness of breath, dizziness, a racing heartbeat, trembling and muscle tension. 

Panic attacks occur unexpectedly and are usually not related to any external threat. A panic attack can last from a few minutes to half an hour. However, the physical and emotional effects of the attack may last for a few hours after the attack. 

Panic attacks are common and can also be called an anxiety attack. 

Without treatment, frequent panic attacks can be extremely debilitating. They can cause avoidance of a wide range of situations due to the fear of experiencing an attack. 

Panic Disorders

Feelings of panic can occur during periods of stress and/or illness. If panic attacks become more frequent, a person may have a panic disorder – a type of anxiety disorder.

Panic disorders are usually recurring and unexpected panic attacks, leaving a person to have persistent fears of repeated attacks.


Panic attacks can cause physical symptoms, such as:

  • Sweating
  • Trembling
  • Hot flushes or chills
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • A choking sensation
  • Rapid heartbeat (tachycardia)
  • Pain or tightness in the chest
  • Ringing in your ears
  • A sensation of butterflies in the stomach
  • Nausea
  • Headaches and dizziness
  • Feeling faint
  • Numbness or pins and needles
  • Dry mouth
  • A need to go to the toilet
  • Confusion or disorientation

In severe cases of phobias and panic attack’s , you may also experience psychological symptoms, such as:

  • Fear of losing control
  • Fear of fainting
  • Feelings of dread
  • Fear of dying

When the body is faced with immediate danger, the brain produces an automatic response to the nervous system, otherwise known as ‘fight or flight’. During this response, the body is flooded with chemicals, including adrenaline, that trigger psychological changes. Some changes include an accelerated heart rate and breathing as blood is shifted to the muscles used to engage in physical combat or running away.

During the ‘fight or flight’ response, panic attacks can be triggered, even when there isn’t any danger. A person can experience a panic attack in situations that are harmless and stress-free, such as during sleep or watching tv.

There are some of the factors that can cause the body to inappropriately activate the ‘fight or flight’ response, these include:

  • Chronic stress can cause the body to produce higher levels of chemicals such as adrenaline. 
  • Acute stress can cause the body to be flooded with large amounts of stress chemicals. 
  • Habitual hyperventilation can cause the balance of the gases within the blood to become disturbed, as the increased intake of oxygen can result in there not being enough carbon dioxide in the blood. 
  • Intense physical exercise can cause reactions in extreme cases for some people. 

It is important to see a specialist if you are unsure whether your symptoms indicate a panic attack as some recurring panic attack-like symptoms could be due to illnesses, including:

  • Diabetes
  • Asthma
  • Inner ear complaints
  • An overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism)
  • Heart complaints
  • Post-partum hyperthyroidism

If you suffer from panic attacks, you may benefit from receiving specialist treatment. Contact us today to speak to one of our patient advisors who will advise you on the best route.