a boy wearing white shirt looking lost in thoughts as he sit on a couch surrounded by friends chatting

A guide for young people Panic attacks

When you have a panic attack, it can feel scary and overwhelming. But you are not alone and you can get through it. Here’s some information and advice that can help you.

What is a panic attack?

A young person sitting on a bench in a park with friends standing around him.

A panic attack or anxiety attack is a sudden and intense feeling of fear and anxiety. It can happen quite suddenly and feel overwhelming or scary.

When you are having a panic attack, your body can react in different ways. Everyone experiences panic attacks differently and your feelings are valid.

During a panic attack, you might feel like you can’t control what’s happening to your body. Or you might feel out of touch with what’s going on around you. You might feel scared that your body is in danger, because of physical symptoms like a racing heartbeat or shortness of breath for example.

Although this can feel very frightening, it’s important to know that a panic attack won’t cause you any physical harm. Even if you don’t feel it during an attack, try to remember you are in control and the feeling will pass.

What are the signs and symptoms of a panic attack?

There are lots of physical symptoms you might experience when you are having a panic attack. You might feel a few of these symptoms at the same time or have a different reaction. Symptoms include:

  • feeling out of breath, starting to breathe really quickly or finding it harder to breathe
  • feeling light-headed, like you might faint
  • finding lights a lot brighter and more intense
  • experiencing a fast heart rate (your heart beating really quickly), perhaps feeling as if you are having a heart attack
  • sweating more than usual
  • feeling shaky
  • having wobbly legs
  • having chest pain
  • being teary, or feeling like you can’t stop crying
  • feeling stuck, like you can’t move
  • having stomach cramps
  • feeling sick

Having a panic attack is a symptom of anxiety. You can find out more about the symptoms of anxiety in our guide.

Guide to anxiety

How long does a panic attack last?

Typically symptoms will be at their worst within ten minutes. You might experience a panic attack over a longer period of time though or have several panic attacks over a short period of time.

If you're having lots of panic attacks at very unpredictable times without an obvious cause, you might be diagnosed with panic disorder.

I get a pounding heart and my breathing becomes rapid like I can’t get any air in - it feels stuck in the back of my throat.
Rachael

Why might I have a panic attack?

A panic attack can happen at any time or place, including at nighttime, and because it can happen quite quickly, it might feel unexpected.

Because a panic attack is an intense feeling of fear and anxiety, it often happens if you are feeling very anxious about something happening in your life, or you have experienced something difficult or stressful. This might be:

There are many reasons why you might feel anxious and have a panic attack. Everyone has different experiences and that’s okay. Sometimes, it might feel like there is no clear reason why you are having a panic attack.

What’s important is to try and understand what you might be feeling anxious or stressed about, and what types of situations or places can cause you to have panic attacks.

A student wearing uniform sits on a desk lost in a thought with their hand over their mouth, they sit next to another student who is focused on the lesson.

By knowing your triggers, you can start to think about what you can do in those situations to cope, or talk to someone about how you can deal with those feelings in that situation or place. Sometimes, we might find it easier to avoid a situation or place that makes us anxious. It’s very understandable that we would want to do this, but in the long term, avoiding situations can make the anxiety feel bigger.

The goal is not to find a way to always avoid situations that make us anxious, but to learn to cope with how we are feeling in those situations.

The first step to doing this is to talk to someone you trust, like a friend, family member, teacher or GP. They can help you understand what you are experiencing and help you find the support you need.

A young woman in a brown jumper looking down with a sad expression with two young men in the background.
I’ve struggled with anxiety for a long time, but health anxiety hasn’t affected me like this before. Now I often find myself hyperventilating, focused on every tiny sensation in my body, and it’s exhausting. Frequently, my brain takes me to the space many people with panic attacks will understand as the ‘I know this is probably a panic attack, but it feels more likely that it’s a heart attack and I’m going to die’ feeling.

What to do if you're having a panic attack

During a panic attack you may feel like you are losing control and like you want to stop the panic attack fast, but remember that this feeling is temporary and there are things you can do to feel 'grounded' again.

Take a look at these tips to help you cope with the panic attack in the moment.

Focus on breathing in slowly, then breathing out slowly. It can be helpful to count when you’re breathing to focus your mind. You can start small at first, like counting to three as you breathe in and counting to three as you breathe out. When you begin to calm down, you can increase how long you hold each breath to five seconds or seven seconds.

There are lots of different breathing techniques that you can try. You can use apps like Headspace and Calm to practise breathing exercises, or have a look online and see what works best for you.

This breathing exercise video from Headspace might help.

Play Video: A breathing exercise you can try from Headspace A breathing exercise you can try from Headspace

If a situation is making you feel panicked, try and find a space where you can take a moment to breathe and calm your thoughts. If you can’t physically go to a safe space, try visualising yourself somewhere where you feel calm, like on a favourite holiday.

When you are having a panic attack, you can feel out of touch with things around you. One way you can feel back in touch with your surroundings is by picking out five things you can see, hear, taste, touch, or smell. This is called a grounding exercise. You can pick a couple for each sense, or focus on one sense, like finding five things that you can see. This can help you feel connected with your surroundings and in control.

A young person sits in a room wearing a black hoodie and their hair tied back. They are looking to the right with their hand curled over their mouth, lost in thought.
I struggle with panic attacks. Before they begin, I usually feel like there are too many voices and they’re all trying to talk at once and it gets messy. When I’m having a panic attack, I cry and I become really quiet. I struggle with talking about my feelings. Usually, I just write them down and hideaway.

After you've had a panic attack

Once you feel your breath returning to normal, you start to feel more in control of your body and your thoughts start to calm down, you might feel drained and tired from the panic attack. It can be a good idea to take some time out to look after yourself and rest if you are able to.

  • Breathing exercises – a simple breathing exercise can have a calming effect and help you to relax.
  • Use a self-soothe box. A self-soothe box contains things that make you feel relaxed. You can put some of your favourite things in there to focus your mind.
  • Listen to some of your favourite music or watch your favourite TV show. This can help you switch off from your anxious thoughts and help you to calm down.
  • Drinking some water can help if you were breathing quickly, felt out of breath or were crying a lot during your panic attack, as your throat might feel dry or you may feel dehydrated.

Everyone has a different way of looking after themselves, so find something that works for you.

You can find more tips and advice on how to look after yourself in our guide to self-care.

Self-care guide

How to cope with panic attacks

A group of young people sit around a table talking to each other. The person closest to the camera as the back to the camera and wears a dark red knitted jumper.

When you have had a panic attack, you might worry about if - or when - you are next going to have one. This can make everyday tasks like going to school, leaving the house or meeting up with friends much more difficult. But remember, you are not alone and there is support available to help you get through this. If you are worried about when you are next going to have a panic attack, here are some things that can help you cope.

If you are feeling anxious or worried that you might have a panic attack, talk to friends or family. They can help you take your mind off what is making you feel panicked and support you to find the help you need. If you are struggling to say how you are feeling, you can always write your thoughts down or put them in notes on your phone if you are planning to speak to a teacher or your GP. If you are worried about having a panic attack at school, college, or university, speak to a teacher or a member of staff. They can work with you to help you with things like finding a safe space to take some time out if you are feeling anxious or panicked.

If you feel like you’re struggling to cope with everyday tasks, speak to your GP. They can listen to how you are feeling and suggest different types of treatments like therapy or counselling, or medication to help with anxiety.

How therapy helped me tackle my panic attacks

Staying physically healthy can help to support your mental wellbeing and make a real difference to your mood and energy levels. Think about how much sleep you’re getting, the foods you’re eating and how much exercise you’re doing. Everyone looks after their physical health differently, so make sure to find what works for you.

You might find it helpful to try some different ways of managing your worries. You could try writing them down in a notebook to help get them off your mind. Some people find it helpful to choose a specific time to focus on their worries to help you not worry about them at other times – you could set a timer for this.

It might be helpful to keep a diary of when you have panic attacks. You could note down any feelings, situations, experiences, or thoughts that you think might have triggered the panic attack. This can help you notice when a panic attack is about to happen. You could also take note of the things that are going well, to help ease your worries and focus on being kind to yourself.

Panic disorder

If you are having unexpected panic attacks often, on a regular basis, and you are not sure what is causing them, this could be a sign of a panic disorder. If you are feeling anxious and panicked regularly, speak to your GP. They can check in with you to see how you are feeling, talk you through the different treatments for panic attacks that are available, and find support that works for you.

How to speak to your GP

Treatment might include a talking therapy, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, that can help you manage your panic attacks by changing the way you think and behave. Your GP may also connect you with a support group so you can talk to other people with the same condition. Or you may be prescribed antidepressants if you and your doctor think this will be helpful.

Find out more about medications
Illustration by elziebug. Text over a lilac, blue and pink background reads, 'you are stronger than you think.'

Illustration by @elziebug. Text over a lilac, blue and pink background reads, 'you are stronger than you think.'

Although panic disorder significantly affected my time in college, I was determined to get the A Levels I needed to progress to university. With the help of my teachers and college mentor, I started to figure out ways to manage my panic disorder alongside lessons and revision.

Eventually, I found some effective coping skills that allowed me to sit my exams and get the grades I needed for my firm choice. These are some strategies I found helpful when I was struggling.
How I learnt to manage panic disorder in school
Charlie, 20

How to help someone who is having a panic attack

It can be difficult to know what to do when someone has a panic attack, especially if you're supporting a friend or family member, but there are things you can do to help.

  • Stay with the person

    If you can, stay with the person during their panic attack. Just by you being there, you can help them to calm down and remind them that help is available. It is okay if you are finding it overwhelming. You can find another friend, family member or teacher they trust to support your friend and you.

  • Talk to them and encourage them

    You can chat to the person about how they are feeling or anything that they like, such as favourite Netflix shows or their hobbies. This can distract them from their anxious thoughts, helping them to feel calm and to slow down their breathing. They might find it difficult to talk and might want to focus on their breath - that’s okay and it’s important to respect their boundaries and how they are feeling.

  • Check in with your friend

    Even though your friend may no longer be panicking, they can still feel anxious or on edge afterwards. You can check in with them to see how they are feeling. This will remind them that they are not alone and you are there for them.

Talk about how you can support your friend

If your friend feels comfortable to, you can suggest talking about how you can support them in the future. This can be things like helping them find a safe space or finding breathing exercises that can help in the moment. This will help them feel better about coping with panic attacks.

More tips and advice

More tips, advice and real stories on coping with anxiety and panic attacks.

 

Get help now

If you need some more support, here are some services that can really help you. 

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