NHS Lothian

What is panic?

2 min read

What is panic?  

Panic is when we experience a sudden surge of intense fear. This comes along with physical sensations and frightened thoughts, which can make us feel even more panicked and create a vicious cycle.  

Researchers believe that panic is the result of our body and mind going into “fight, flight or freeze” mode. This is a stress response that our ancestors developed to keep themselves safe from harm in a world where there were many dangers, such as predators or enemy tribes. Most people live in a very different type of world today, but we’re still hard-wired with the same stress response. Panic attacks can be the result of this response becoming over-sensitive. This can happen when weve been through difficult experiences, or when we have a lot of stress in our lives. 


What’s it like to have a panic attack? 

People who struggle with panic often say that they become terrified of when they’ll have their next panic attack Panic attacks typically last between 5 and 20 minutes. 


What causes panic attack? 

Some panic attacks have a clear cause, while others just seem to come out of nowhere. Panic attacks can be caused by: 

  • Stressful and ongoing life events 
  • Reminders of difficult or traumatic experiences 
  • Driving 
  • Withdrawal from drugs or alcohol 
  • Long term illnesses 
  • Chronic pain 


Panic attacks can sometimes go together with other difficulties, such as depression, agoraphobia (fear of open or crowded spaces) or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

Research has helped us understand the important role that thoughts can play in the development of panic attacks. These thoughts can be about yourself, other people, the future and the world around you. If you’re struggling with panic attacks, you may recognise the following negative thoughts: 


Thoughts about yourself 

  • “I’ll have a panic attack and make a fool of myself” 
  • “I’m going mad” 
  • “I’m going to die” 
  • “I need to keep myself safe” 


Thoughts about the future 

  • These panic attacks will kill me” 
  • “I won’t be able to go out anymore because of the panic” 


Thoughts about other people 

  • “Other people will think I’m ill and call an ambulance – I’ll be so embarrassed 
  • I need someone with me if I’m going to go outside, in case I have a panic attack” 


Thoughts about the world 

  • It’s dangerous to go out when I might have a panic attack” 
  • “I should stay inside where it’s safe” 


How common are panic attacks? 

A lot of people experience panic attack once or twice in their lives, most commonly during stressful situation. However about 3% of people experience ongoing panic attacks for a prolonged period of their lives. This is sometimes known as panic disorder. Panic disorder is more common in women than in men. 


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