Panic attacks

Sherry-Lee Smith


Registered Psychologist

Perth, Western Australia

What are panic attacks or anxiety attacks?

When an abrupt surge of intense anxiety happens, a person is said to have had a panic attack (also sometimes referred to as anxiety attacks). The anxiety reaches a peak within several minutes and can last for up to half an hour. During this state of intense apprehension 4 or more of the following physiological and psychological symptoms may occur;

  • Increase in heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Feelings of choking
  • Breathlessness
  • Pain or discomfort in the chest
  • Nausea
  • Hot or cold sensations in the body
  • Feeling light headed or dizzy
  • Tingling or numbness
  • Feeling like things aren’t real or detached from oneself
  • Fear of dying
  • Fear of losing control

A panic attack can start from a previously calm state or an anxious state. In any one year, around 11% of adults are thought to experience panic attacks. They can occur in the context of any mental health issue and are therefore quite common. They can be expected (triggered by an event, thought, situation etc.) or unexpected (where there is no obvious trigger).

How medical treatment or counselling/psychotherapy can help

Both medical treatment and counselling/psychotherapy can be helpful in the treatment panic attacks and panic disorder. It is recommended that both medical and psychological treatment is sort. It is important to have a medical check up to ensure that the symptoms you are experiencing are not related to a medical condition.

Once medical conditions have been ruled out, medication may be helpful in the treatment of panic attacks and panic disorder. These include anti-depressants such as serotonin re-uptake inhibitors SRI’s (Prozac or Luvox), tricyclic antidepressants (ie Tofranil or Anafranil) or monoamine oxidase (MAO) inhibitors or benzodiazepines (such as Xanax). If you are considering medication for panic attacks or panic disorder you should discuss this with a medical professional such as a general practitioner (GP) or psychiatrist.

Psychological treatment for panic attacks and panic disorder may focus on the following;

  • Psychoeducation about anxiety, panic attacks and panic disorder
  • Changing unhelpful behaviour patterns
  • Changing unhelpful thinking patterns
  • Exposure to physical sensations related to panic
  • Normalising thoughts related to the physical sensations of anxiety and panic
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Interpersonal communication skills
  • Relaxation strategies
  • Breathing strategies
  • Mindfulness skills
  • Thought stopping and distraction techniques
  • Addressing avoidance and ‘safety’ behaviour
  • Exploring the psychological significance of panic and unconscious conflicts and addressing interpersonal issues related to panic (such as unconscious anger towards loved ones, fearful dependency, ambivalent attachment patterns, ambivalent feelings about autonomy, fear of loss or abandonment)
  • Encouraging emotional experience and expression
  • Developing exercise routines
  • Relapse prevention

Tips to help with panic attacks

  • Slow your breathing down as much as possible – try breathing through a straw or into a paper bag. Take slow deep breaths
  • Remind yourself that the panic attack is temporary and it will pass
  • Educate yourself on anxiety and panic attacks
  • Avoid nicotine and caffeine as much as possible
  • Recognise that you are beginning to panic, remind yourself you are not in danger and that panic attacks aren’t life threatening
  • Remember that you aren’t alone, lots of other people also suffer from panic attacks
  • Relax your body as much as possible
  • Focus on something other than your body and the symptoms. Try naming one thing around you that starts with each letter of the alphabet
  • Meditation or yoga can be helpful in teaching you to relax
  • As much as possible try not to avoid situations where panic has happened
  • Make exercise a regular part of your daily schedule
  • Talk to your GP to ensure there aren’t any medical conditions that might be causing your symptoms.

If you are experiencing any difficulties with anxiety, panic attacks or other mental health issues and would like help please contact Sherry-Lee Smith on 042 135 1020 or

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Phoenix Holistic Health Centre

Upstairs Unit 4 / 131 Herdsman Parade

Wembley, Perth Western Australia

Sherry-Lee Smith

Principle Psychologist