Signs of a panic attack

Child sat under cushions on sofa

If you’re not familiar with the signs of a panic attack, it may seem as though it has come from nowhere, without warning. In fact, a panic attack is usually a manifestation of anxiety. It’s the body’s natural fight or flight response kicking in – the very natural behaviour that we’re programmed to exhibit in the face of danger.

For example, you may notice that your heart starts beating faster than normal. You might feel breathless or compelled to complete some rituals or safety behaviours to quell the growing feeling of unease inside you. Your stomach might hurt or you could feel the urge to use the toilet.

There are many early signs of a panic attack. If you can identify these and take action, you may prevent a full-blown panic attack.


How anxiety turns to panic

If the body is consistently switching from a calm state to a heightened state of fear and worry, your brain might become confused about when you’re in real danger.

As a result, it’ll start producing stress hormones like Cortisol at times when it thinks you need it. For example, if you suffer from anxiety or PTSD, there may be times when you feel nervous, worried or scared at the thought of something bad happening, even though there’s no immediate threat to your safety.

These situations are not dangerous, but if you respond to them by feeling nervous or scared, your brain might interpret them as threatening to your safety. As a result, it will produce the hormones you’d need to defend yourself or retreat from physical danger, like needing to run away if you’re being attacked.

Because you don’t need to run away or prepare to fight, there’s no outlet for these stress hormones. So instead, they begin to swirl around in your body and cause some physical sensations.

These physical sensations can include:

  • Racing pulse
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea
  • Chest pain or tightness
  • Numb or tingling hands or feet
  • Hot flushes
  • Trembling or feeling faint

You may experience some, or all, of these symptoms. With some simple techniques, you can stop the panic attack in its tracks and continue with your day – it’s all about knowing what to do!


What to do if you feel the signs of a panic attack

Although these symptoms can be frightening to experience, they’re actually harmless to your body if they happen rarely.

The best thing to do if you experience the signs of a panic attack is to try a breathing technique or mindfulness exercise to calm your system.

The 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 method is very useful for distracting your mind from the panic attack and calming your nervous system.


Simply identify:

● 5 things you can see

● 4 things you can hear

● 3 things you can touch

● 2 things you can smell

● 1 thing you can taste

By the time you’ve completed this exercise, you’ll notice that your breathing has slowed and you should feel a lot calmer.

Another great technique is to breathe in slowly and gently through your nose for a count of 5, then breathe out through your mouth for as long as you can. Then repeat the exercise.


Seeking help for anxiety

It’s helpful to have some tactics for dealing with a panic attack as it happens. But it’s even more important to identify the root cause of your panic attacks or anxiety.

Speak to a GP if you or a child in your care is suffering from regular panic attacks. There are many options available to help you manage the anxiety, from talking therapies to medication.

If you’re seeking help for panic attacks on behalf of a child, you can also speak to a school SENDCO or your child’s teacher.