Panic Attacks

There are a number of reasons why you might be having panic attacks. They range from stressful life experiences, which have caused you emotional distress, to problems with your diet or your breathing.

Panic attacks are extremely frightening. They seem to come out of the blue, strike at random, make people feel powerless, out of control, and as if they are about to die or go mad.

A panic attack is an exaggeration of the body’s normal response to fear, stress or excitement. When faced with a situation seen as potentially threatening, the body automatically gears itself up for danger, by producing quantities of adrenalin for ‘fight or flight’.

This would have prepared our cave-dwelling ancestors to fight or run away from danger, but it’s much less appropriate to the stresses we encounter today. To read more about adrenalin and the fight or flight response see our page on Anxiety.

Physical and Emotional Symptoms
When adrenalin floods your body, it can cause a number of different physical and emotional sensations that may affect you during a panic attack.

These may include:
– very rapid breathing or feeling unable to breathe
– very rapid heartbeat
– pains in your chest
– feeling faint or dizzy
– sweating
– ringing in your ears
– tingling or numbness in your hands and feet
– hot or cold flushes
– feeling nauseous
– wanting to go to the toilet
– feelings of absolute terror
– feelings of unreality, called depersonalisation and derealisation:

– Depersonalisation: feeling detached from your body and surroundings, feeling strange and unreal.

– Derealisation: feeling grounded in yourself, but the world seems distant or strange, and you may feel unsteady on your feet.

The unpredictability of Panic Attacks

Panic attacks come on very quickly, symptoms usually peaking within 10 minutes. Most panic attacks last for between five and 20 minutes. Some people report attacks lasting for up to an hour, but they are likely to be experiencing one attack after another, or a high level of anxiety after the initial attack. You may have one or two panic attacks and never experience another. Or you may have attacks once a month or several times each week.

 Panic attacks can come in the night when you are asleep. These night-time attacks occur as your body is on ‘high alert’ and can detect small, normal changes in your body which it then takes as a sign of danger. (The fact that you can be monitoring your bodily sensations while asleep is perfectly normal and automatic – just think about the times you have woken up and needed to go to the toilet.) Night-time attack may be particularly frightening, as you may feel confused and helpless to do anything to spot it coming.

 This is one of the most distressing aspects of suffering from panic attacks – they may seem completely unpredictable, and therefore uncontrollable.

Emotional impact

During an attack, you may fear that the world is going to come to an end, or that you are about to die or go mad. The most important thing to remember is that, however dreadful you may feel during an attack, this is not going to happen. The bodily effects of panic attacks, such as breathlessness, are just part of the panic. If you would like further reassurance, see your GP, so they can rule out any physical cause for your symptoms.

How do panic attacks become a problem?

A high level of adrenalin is not in itself a bad thing. It can give you the extra energy to deal with difficult demands and challenges. The damage is done when the levels of adrenalin don’t fall, naturally, after a stressful event. Stress becomes prolonged and tension becomes a habit.

 For many people, their first panic attack comes out of the blue and creates a state of arousal. You may find yourself becoming more nervous, impatient and irritable as you feel, understandably, apprehensive about having another attack.

 If you experience panic attacks over a period of time, you may develop a fear of fear. Because you have become hyper-aware of the sensations associated with fear – sensitised to them – you tense up whenever anything at all reminds you of the original panic. This can include your own bodily sensations. So someone feeling hot, or with sweaty hands (perhaps because they are in a meeting in a warm room), may assume, automatically, that they are in for another panic attack. Anticipating this makes them tense up and produces the very panic response they feared.

Related problems

You may start to associate particular places and situations with having an attack. In an attempt to avoid another one, you may steer clear of places where attacks have previously occurred. But this may put more and more restrictions on your day-to-day activities, and could lead to agoraphobia or social phobia.

As you feel more out of control and restrict your activities, your enjoyment of life and your self-confidence is undermined. Many people who experience panic attacks become very depressed.

What causes these attacks?

There are many physical and psychological factors, which may be interwoven. You may experience panic only in response to a particular situation, such as flying or visiting the dentist. Or you may feel perfectly fine during a stressful event, but may have an attack later. This is because adrenalin levels don’t drop straight away. Any major life changes and events can trigger panic attacks.

Childhood influences
Incidents in childhood, and the way you were brought up and taught to think about yourself, can make you vulnerable to panic attacks later on. If you experienced great fear at being separated from a parent, you may have gone on to develop school phobia. As an adult, you may then have panic attacks when threatened with the loss of a support system or of someone who is important to you. Adult survivors of abuse in childhood also frequently suffer panic attacks.

Personality traits
If you are always anxious, you are more likely to have panic attacks. Being over-critical and disapproving of yourself, and striving to conform to the expectations of others, is common in people who panic. You may have difficulties in expressing your own needs and asserting yourself.

Physical causes
There are a number of physical causes that could be causing or contributing to your panic attacks:

– Unstable blood sugar levels (hypoglycaemia) can be the result of poor eating habits, dieting and fasting.

– Over-breathing (hyperventilation) happens when you are under stress, though you may not be aware of it. Your breathing becomes more rapid, in order to meet the body’s demand for more oxygen for the muscles. As a result, you breathe out more carbon-dioxide than normal, which can bring on panic symptoms.

– Digestive problems, particularly food allergies, may be to blame.

– Taking antidepressants, may produce panic attacks, especially at first.

– Caffeine, cigarettes, alcohol, and certain street drugs (such as LSD, marijuana and cocaine) can bring on a panic reaction.

– Withdrawing from any drug that has a sedative effect, such as nicotine, alcohol and tranquillisers, can do the same.

– Some prescription medication, including some amphetamines, steroids, anti-asthma drugs, and even nasal decongestants have been reported to increase anxiety.

– Sometimes, problems with the way the brain works (known as organic brain dysfunction) will cause balance, coordination and visual difficulties that make people very vulnerable to stress, and may contribute to agoraphobia.

– Being in chronic pain can be another cause of panic attacks, as can simple jet lag.

How can hypnotherapy help?

With the help of  hypnotherapy you can learn to recognise the feelings that precede your panic attacks and release the hold they have on your life. And you can do this is a safe and controlled environment.

At the onset of a panic attack, your mind signals to your body to react physically to some sort of perceived threat. Hypnosis can allow you to take back control by helping you to recognise and regulate your response.

Still have questions? Get in touch.

How can we help?

With the help of  hypnotherapy you can learn to recognise the feelings that precede your panic attacks and release the hold they have on your life. And you can do this is a safe and controlled environment.

At the onset of a panic attack, your mind signals to your body to react physically to some sort of perceived threat. Hypnosis can allow you to take back control by helping you to recognise and regulate your response.


Find out more about what is involved for a Therapy session on the therapy page or get in touch if you have questions. If you want to go ahead, use the Buy Now button below.

1:1 Therapy session of approximately 60-90 mins

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