How to Recognize a Panic Attack and How to Help

A panic attack is a brief but intense rush of fear accompanied by a variety of distressing physical and psychological symptoms. During a panic attack, individuals may experience an overwhelming sense of impending doom or a fear of losing control. It can be a highly distressing and debilitating experience, often leaving the person feeling helpless and frightened.

Manuela Băbuș
Medical Writer
How to Recognize a Panic Attack and How to Help

The physical symptoms of a panic attack 

  • a rapid heart rate, 
  • chest pain or discomfort, 
  • shortness of breath, 
  • trembling or shaking, 
  • sweating, 
  • a feeling of being lightheaded or dizzy. 
  • sensations of numbness or tingling
  • headache

The psychological symptoms of a panic attack

  • a sense of unreality or detachment from oneself
  • fear of going crazy or losing touch with reality
  • an overwhelming sense of fear or terror. 

These symptoms can be incredibly distressing and may lead to further anxiety and avoidance behaviors.

It is important to note that panic attacks can occur unexpectedly, without any apparent trigger, or they can be triggered by specific situations or stimuli, such as crowded places, flying, or public speaking

Each person's experience with panic attacks may vary in terms of frequency, intensity, and duration.

Risk factors associated with panic attacks

  1. Family History: Having a family history of panic disorder or panic attacks can increase the risk of developing panic attacks. Genetic factors may play a role in the susceptibility to panic attacks.
  1. History of Anxiety or Mental Health Conditions: Individuals with a history of anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder or social anxiety disorder, have a higher risk of experiencing panic attacks. Other mental health conditions, such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), may also contribute to the risk.
  1. Significant Life Stressors: High levels of stress, major life changes, or traumatic events can trigger panic attacks in susceptible individuals. Stressful situations such as job loss, relationship problems, or the loss of a loved one can increase the risk.
  1. Substance Abuse: Substance abuse, including alcohol, drugs, or certain medications, can increase the risk of panic attacks. Substance use can disrupt brain chemistry and contribute to the development of anxiety and panic symptoms.
  1. Specific phobias, such as agoraphobia (fear of open or public spaces), or engaging in avoidance behaviors can increase the likelihood of panic attacks. Avoiding situations or places that may trigger anxiety can reinforce the fear response and potentially lead to panic attacks.
  1. Medical Conditions: cardiovascular diseases, respiratory disorders (asthma), and thyroid imbalances, have been associated with an increased risk of panic attacks. 

Having one or more of these risk factors doesn't guarantee that an individual will experience panic attacks. However, recognizing these factors can help individuals and healthcare professionals identify potential vulnerabilities and provide appropriate support and treatment if needed. 

Recognizing the symptoms of a panic attack can help provide support and assistance to someone in need. 

It is important to remain calm, offer reassurance, and encourage slow and deep breathing techniques to help regulate their breathing.

!! If someone frequently experiences panic attacks or if the attacks significantly impact their daily life, it is essential to seek professional help. Treatment options such as therapy and medication can help manage panic attacks and the underlying anxiety that often accompanies them.

Things to avoid when assisting someone with a panic attack:

  1. Don't suggest multiple techniques at once: It's crucial to focus on one method at a time to reduce panic attacks. Allow sufficient time for each technique to take effect before trying something different.
  1. Don't compare their experience to normal fear or stress: While fear and stress are common reactions to identifiable problems, panic attacks often occur without a specific trigger and can involve intense physiological symptoms. Avoid minimizing their experience by equating it to everyday stress.
  1. Avoid dismissive statements: Phrases like "Just calm down," "You're overreacting," or "You're acting crazy" can be hurtful and invalidate their struggle. During a panic attack, words carry significant weight, so strive to be empathetic, non-judgmental, and supportive.
  2. Don't assume their needs: Instead of making assumptions, ask the person what they need from you to provide the best support in reducing their panic attack symptoms. Effective communication is key.
  3. Avoid substances that can worsen symptoms: Refrain from offering caffeine, alcohol, or non-prescription medications not specifically intended for anxiety or panic symptoms. These substances can potentially trigger physical reactions and lead to additional panic attacks.
  4. Encourage facing fears instead of avoidance: While it may be tempting to avoid triggering situations or places, it's important to encourage the person to face their fears with support and assistance. Avoidance can reinforce panic disorder, so promoting gradual exposure can be beneficial.

Panic Disorder

Panic disorder is a chronic mental health condition characterized by recurrent and unexpected panic attacks. It goes beyond occasional episodes of panic, as individuals with panic disorder live in constant fear of experiencing another attack. This apprehension often leads to significant changes in behavior as they try to avoid situations that might trigger panic attacks.

Living with panic disorder can be challenging and impact various aspects of an individual's life. 

Social activities, work performance, and personal relationships may suffer due to the fear of having panic attacks in public or in front of others

The fear of losing control during an attack can also contribute to the development of agoraphobia, which is the avoidance of places or situations that might be challenging to escape from or where help may not be readily available.

 Treatment and Management 

Fortunately, panic attacks and panic disorders can be effectively treated through a combination of therapy, medication, and lifestyle adjustments. 

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is widely recognized as a practical approach to managing panic disorder. CBT helps individuals identify and challenge negative thought patterns, develop coping mechanisms, and gradually confront feared situations.

Medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and benzodiazepines may be prescribed to alleviate symptoms and manage the underlying anxiety associated with panic disorder. However, medication should always be used under the guidance of a healthcare professional.

In addition to therapy and medication, lifestyle adjustments can significantly contribute to the management of panic attacks and panic disorder. Regular exercise, healthy sleep habits, stress reduction techniques (e.g., mindfulness, meditation), and avoiding stimulants like caffeine and nicotine are important factors in maintaining overall well-being.

Gradual Exposure: Panic attacks often arise from fear of specific situations or triggers. Gradual exposure to these feared situations, known as exposure therapy, can help desensitize individuals and reduce their anxiety response over time. Working with a therapist experienced in exposure-based techniques can be beneficial.


Panic attacks and panic disorders can have a profound impact on an individual's life, causing distress and disrupting daily functioning. 

However, individuals can regain control over their lives by understanding the nature of these conditions and seeking appropriate help.

It is important to remember that seeking professional support, such as therapy and medication, is essential in managing panic attacks and panic disorders effectively.

With proper treatment and a supportive environment, individuals can overcome the challenges posed by these conditions and lead fulfilling lives.

Article Citations & Bibliography accessed on 24 of May accessed on 24 of May accessed on 24 of May

Curt Cackovic, Saad Nazir, Raman Marwaha. Panic Disorder. (February 7, 2022). National Library of Medicine. Retrieved from

Please note that the information provided on this blog is for educational and informational purposes only. It is not intended to be used as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this blog.

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Manuela Băbuș.
Medical Writer