Understanding Panic Attacks


A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear and anxiety that triggers rapid physical changes in the body. Panic attacks often come out of the blue and can strike without any warning. For this reason, many people often report feeling anxious or fearful about having future attacks.

Fight or Flight Response

The fight or flight response is the physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful event, attack, or threat to survival. This response is activated during a panic attack when the body perceives danger so that it can physically prepare for a possible emergency. Certain hormones are then released in the body including adrenaline and cortisol which lead to changes in heart rate, breathing, vision and hearing.

Sometimes panic attacks have specific triggers like being in an extremely stressful situation or going through a major life transition. Panic attacks can also appear out of the blue with no specific trigger. Since there is no immediate danger or threat in the environment, people often attribute danger to the physical symptoms they are experiencing. This is known as catastrophizing and often intensifies the attack. Experiencing repeated panic attacks can also lead to anticipatory anxiety, or fear of having future panic attacks (Bourne, 1995).

Common signs and symptoms

The following is a list of common signs and symptoms of panic attacks:
Pounding heart or accelerated heart rate
Trembling or shaking
Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
Feeling of choking
Chest pain or discomfort
Nausea or abdominal distress
dizziness, lightheadedness, or faintness
Feelings of unreality or detachment
Fear of losing control or going crazy
Fear of dying
Numbness or tingling sensations
Chills or hot flashes

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is an effective and clinically proven treatment for panic attacks. The CBT approach helps individuals understand the thinking patterns and behaviors that may be underlying or maintaining their panic symptoms. People often learn specific coping strategies including: challenging & restructuring thoughts, relaxation techniques, and other effective tools specifically for their situation.


Bourne, E. J. (1995). Anxiety and Phobia Workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publication.

By Shari Wood M.Ed., R.C.C.
The information provided on this blog are for educational purposes only and do not replace individual counselling or advise from your medical doctor. Further, they are not intended for those experiencing symptoms such as suicidal thoughts, for which emergency help should be sought.