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Panic Attacks

My next few blogs, in a series about managing intense emotions, look at two particularly challenging emotions – panic attacks and emotional flashbacks. I will look at the differences between the two, suggest how to handle both, and focus, in this blog, on high levels of anxiety and panic attacks.

Panic and anxiety attacks

Panic attacks and anxiety attacks are very similar – they both cause a rapid heart rate, shallow breathing, and a sense of distress. However, they typically differ in severity and cause. Panic attacks are often more intense and often occur suddenly, with or without a trigger, while anxiety attacks can be mild or severe, and are a response to a perceived threat – they tend to build up gradually over time. Panic attacks, though extremely unpleasant, typically subside after around 20 minutes. Anxiety attacks may last for longer periods. 

The following information, though it is geared towards panic attacks, is also relevant for anxiety attacks. 

What does a panic attack feel like?

A panic attack is a condition of adrenaline being released into your bloodstream. A message of fear sends a signal to the adrenal glands that there is an emergency. This is known as the fight or flight response and is an essential part of our innate protection mechanism as humans. The adrenal glands are pea-sized organs that sit on top of your kidneys. They are filled with adrenaline that, when released into your body, gives you heightened abilities to respond to emergency situations. This emergency response causes physical symptoms that many people misinterpret as a heart attack or other serious physical conditions. Misinterpreting these symptoms can cause the fear response to continue.

Adrenaline causes the heart to pump extra blood. This extra blood gets pumped into your major muscles to increase your ability to run fast and to increase the strength in your arms. Extra blood also goes into your brain to give you heightened abilities to respond to the emergency.

It takes three minutes from the time that your brain sends the emergency signal until your body is fully adrenalated with extra blood in your large arm and leg muscles and in your brain. In that three minute period you experience your heart pumping hard and extra blood flowing throughout your body. As long as your adrenal glands keep getting an emergency message, they continue to produce and release additional adrenaline. Once your brain stops signaling an emergency, your adrenal glands hold the adrenaline instead of releasing it.

It takes three minutes for your adrenal glands to fill your body with the adrenaline response. It also only takes three minutes for your body to stop the adrenaline reaction. If you stop a panic attack as soon as it starts, the reaction only has to last for three minutes. Stopping a panic attack is very simple. All you have to do is stop the emergency message from being sent to your adrenal glands. Learn these four simple steps and your panic attack will only last for three minutes. Once you understand how this works, you never have to have a panic attack again.

What can inappropriately activate our “fight or flight” response?

We tend to associate panic attacks with situations where there is a high level of stress (such as experiencing a traumatic event), and this may often indeed be the case, but they can occur for many other reasons:

  • Chronic (ongoing) stress – nothing particular has happened that day or in the moments beforehand, but the long term stress has caused the body to regularly produce higher than usual levels of stress chemicals such as adrenaline – this may suddenly tip over, like a pressure cooker effect, into a full blown panic attack.
  • Habitual hyperventilation – we may well be totally unaware of this but shallow breathing (sometimes combined with taking in huge gulps of air after having held our breath for a few seconds) disturbs the balance of blood gases because there is not enough carbon dioxide in the blood. Again nothing has happened externally but the body interprets the breathing signals as “danger – implement fight or flight mode”.
  • Intense physical exercise – for some people, this may cause extreme reactions. If someone is experiencing panic attacks, it is often advisable to restrict intense aerobic physical exercise for a while until things settle down.
  • Excessive caffeine intake – the caffeine in coffee, tea and other beverages is a strong stimulant and again should be restricted if someone is experiencing panic attacks. 
  • Certain medical conditions – heart disease, thyroid problems, asthma, inner ear complaints, respiratory disorders or they can result from drug withdrawal or as a side effect of certian medications.
  • A sudden change of environment – such as walking into an overcrowded, hot or stuffy environment – can bring on a panic attack – again the body responding to a sense of threat often before the mind has registered it. 


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Need some advice and support?

If you are struggling with any of the issues raised in this article, or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.

See also: Why do I feel so emotional?

How to Manage Intense Emotions

Managing Emotions