Updated 22 May 2015

Panic: your questions answered

A panic attack can be terrifying. Four experts answer your questions.


Pounding heart, shortness of breath, sweating, fear of losing control or of dying. Sound familiar? These are some of the typical symptoms of a panic attack.

What is panic disorder?
These intense feelings of terror and fear can last anything from a few seconds to a few minutes. The first attack often follows a stressful life event such as the death of a close family member or friend, loss of a close interpersonal relationship or after a separation.

When someone has repeated panic attacks, the condition is diagnosed as a panic disorder. Research shows that about two to four in every 100 people may suffer from panic disorder at any given time. There are multiple causes, including brain chemistry, genetic factors and stressful life events or circumstances.

In some cases, many years go by before someone is diagnosed correctly. During this time sufferers tend to avoid situations or places where the initial attack(s) took place, fearing another attack. This can be very debilitating and unnecessarily limit their lives.

The good news is that treatment consisting of medication and/or psychotherapy is effective in most cases. It is also important for a person to learn what to do when he/she has an attack.

If you suffer from panic attacks, here are 14 "on-the-spot" tips to get through such an attack.

  • Take "time out" and slow down. Slow your rate of breathing, slow your racing thoughts, slow your entire body, head to toe. Then slowly resume your previous activities.
  • Picture a relaxing scene using all your senses. Now put yourself into the scene.
  • If there are places available, take a stroll. If there are people available, talk to one of them.
  • Picture a person you trust, someone who believes in you, supports you and cares about your well-being. Now imagine the person is with you, offering you encouragement.
  • Recall a time you handled a similar situation well, or try to bring to mind a past success and the good feelings you experienced at that time.
  • Focus on the present, on concrete objects around you. Make a game of noticing details or inventing questions about every object you identify.
  • Count backwards from 20 and with every number, picture a different image of someone you love, something that pleases you, something that calms you. These might be images you recall from the past or those you only imagine.
  • Occupy your mind with an absorbing task. Plan your schedule for the day or the evening; try to recall the name of all the Clint Eastwood movies you have ever seen; plan a sumptuous meal, appetiser through to dessert, and imagine yourself eating one bite of every course.
  • Bring to mind the image of a person you admire and imagine yourself to actually be that person. Think as they might think, act as they might act, even feel as they might feel.
  • Remind yourself that attacks always end. Always.
  • Remind yourself that panic is not dangerous.
  • Take a giant yawn and stretch your body, head to toe.
  • Get mad. Vow not to let panic win out. You deserve better.
  • If all else fails, take as deep a breath as you can and hold it as long as you can. Use one of the other strategies to occupy your mind. Your physical symptoms should come down and stay down.

- South African Depression and Anxiety Group
- Mental Health Information Centre


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