What is a panic attack?

A panic attack is an exaggeration of your body’s normal response to fear, stress or excitement. It is the rapid build-up of overwhelming physical sensations, such as:

a pounding heartbeat
feeling faint
sweating
nausea (feeling sick)
chest pains
feeling unable to breathe
shaky limbs, or feeling like your legs are turning to jelly
feeling like you’re not connected to your body

I could feel all these physical symptoms building inside me, literally filling every part of my body until I felt completely light-headed and disembodied.

During a panic attack you might feel very afraid that:

you’re losing control
you’re going to faint
you’re having a heart attack
you’re going to die

My teeth would chatter uncontrollably and my whole body [would] tremble, I’d hyperventilate and cry with panic as the feeling that I was going to fall unconscious was so convincing.

When do panic attacks happen?


It’s different for different people. You might have a good understanding about likely situations or places that can trigger an attack for you, or you might feel that your attacks come without warning and happen at random.

I felt like I couldn't breathe, I just wanted to get out, to go somewhere else, but I couldn't because I was on a train.
Night time panic attacks

Panic attacks can also come in the night while you’re asleep, and wake you up. This can happen if your brain is very alert (due to anxiety), and interprets small changes in your body as a sign of danger.Experiencing a panic attack during the night can be particularly frightening, as you may feel confused about what’s happening, and are helpless to do anything to spot it coming.

I can’t sleep due to panic attacks and nightmares. When I fall asleep within an hour I am up, soaked, heart racing and shaking.

How long do panic attacks last?

Most panic attacks last for between 5 and 20 minutes. They can come on very quickly, and your symptoms will usually peak within 10 minutes.Sometimes you might experience symptoms of a panic attack which last for up to an hour. If this happens you are probably experiencing one attack after another, or a high level of anxiety after the initial panic attack.

How often might I have panic attacks?

Again, it’s different for different people. You might have one panic attack and never experience another, or you might have attacks once a month or even several times each week.

To read the full factsheet, including information on symptoms, causes, self-help treatment & support and more, please click here. Please note, this will take you to the National Mind website.
To see what services and support we offer for people experiencing panic attacks, please click here.