Do you ever feel like you’re in over your head? That everything is happening too fast, and you can’t keep up? That’s what panic feels like. It’s a sense of overwhelming fear that can make it difficult to think straight or breathe. In this blog post, we will explore the causes and symptoms of panic as well as some methods for alleviating it.

Panic often has the word attack attached to it. Removing the word ‘attack’ often defuses the situation somewhat. So, what are the causes of this panic and how does it manifest? Let’s take a look below.


What Causes Panic?

There are a number of things that can trigger panic. Some people may have a genetic predisposition to anxiety which can be brought on by stressors in their environment. These include:

  • Agoraphobia
  • Social phobia
  • Specific phobia
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder

Others may experience panic due to psychological factors such as:

  • Prolonged periods of stress
  • Bereavement
  • Relationship issues
  • Work issues

Other factors that can bring on panic may be causative. These include:

  • Alcohol
  • Recreational drugs
  • Prescription medicine
  • Caffeine

What are the Symptoms of Panic?

Panic can manifest in a number of ways. It may not be the same every time. Symptoms may include:

  • Shortness of breath and smothering sensations
  • Choking sensations
  • Palpitations and accelerated heart rate
  • Chest discomfort or pain
  • Sweating
  • Dizziness, unsteady feelings or faintness
  • Nausea or abdominal distress
  • Depersonalisation or derealisation (they become dissociated)
  • Numbness or tingling sensations
  • Flushes or chills
  • Trembling or shaking
  • A fear that the sufferer is dying, having a heart attack or stroke
  • A fear that you are going crazy or that they are about to do something  uncontrolled
  • Hyperventilation

These symptoms can also be accompanied by a sense of imminent danger, impending doom or an urge to escape. Hyperventilation is often the scariest of the symptoms associated with panic; it can lead people to believe they can’t breathe or are experiencing a heart attack.


What is hyperventilation?

Hyperventilation is breathing that is deeper and more rapid than usual. This causes you to expel carbon dioxide from your lungs at a rate faster than your body can replace it, a condition known as hypocapnoea. The resulting drop in carbon dioxide levels causes many of the symptoms listed above.

There are two types of hyperventilation:

Episodic  – Hyperventilation occurs during episodes of high anxiety or depression.

Habitual – Hyperventilation occurs most of the time and is the result of a bad breathing habit or style

Hyperventilation will cause the nervous system to respond in a variety of ways, such as:

  • Dizziness
  • Feeling light-headed
  • Feelings of confusion
  • Depersonalisation
  • Derealisation
  • Peripheral nervous system responses
  • Numbness and tingling sensations
  • Feelings of heaviness in the limbs
  • Feelings of stiffness in limbs

This can lead to panic escalation – If hyperventilation continues, the symptoms will escalate and may include:

  • Second stage hyperventilation
  • Severe vertigo – dizziness and nausea
  • Difficulty in breathing
  • Tightness or pains in the chest
  • Temporary paralysis of certain muscle groups
  • Momentary loss of consciousness
  • Rising terror accompanied by fears of impending doom or serious illness.

Panic escalation usually exhibits four distinct phases (Andrews et al. 2002): 

The sufferer makes unrealistic self-statements that keep them in a state of constant alarm. Their body becomes tense due to the fight or flight response.

The sufferer begins to fear the fear itself. As the fear rises, so they begin to anticipate the panic attack, thus generating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The sufferer begins to reject their own rational feelings and thoughts as the fear continues to escalate. This is known as recursive anxiety.

They'll begin to avoid any situation where they perceive they may experience feelings of panic. If they don't enter an avoided situation, then a panic attack occurs, and the self-fulfilling prophecy is fulfilled.

Phase 4 will then act to reinforce the previous phases

What should you do if you believe you are experiencing panic?

The first and foremost thing to do is contact your GP. This is just to rule out that the symptoms being experienced are not caused by a medical condition. If a GP finds no evidence of a physical condition, they may then refer you for psychological help.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is one type of talking therapy that can be particularly helpful in treating panic. It involves working with a therapist to identify and challenge any unhelpful thoughts and behaviours that might be contributing to your symptoms.

3 tips to alleviate panic on the spot

Obviously, the above advice is for the long-term and ongoing treatment of panic. In the moment, though, there are things you can do to take control of the panic. The below three tips will help. Remember them and give them a go next time you experience a moment of panic.

  1. Close your mouth or get the other to close their mouth
  2. Pinch the philtrum hard for 30 seconds or until the panic dies down
  3. Breathe to a pattern of seven seconds in and eleven seconds out


Charles has worked with many people who have been plagued by panic and anxieties. If you ready to take that power back, book a free 15-minute chat with Charles via the button below.


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