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Panic Attacks

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Panic Attacks





Friday night is Jenny’s year 11 school disco… Jenny is already getting anxious just thinking about it and it is only Tuesday… What am I going to wear? Will I find a boy to dance with me? Who will I hang out with on the night? Will I just be sitting alone with no one to talk to?


These questions are the only things Jenny can think about….. Her heart starts to beat faster…. She feels a thumping sensation in her chest…. Her limbs begin to shake, Her palms and feet are sweating and she begins to feel dizzy and light headed……


“What is wrong with me?” asks Jenny.


Jenny could be having a panic attack which occurs when the level of anxiety and stress becomes to overwhelming for the mind to cope with (Cabot, 2009). The stress overload causes the defence and coping mechanisms of the mind to break down allowing the anxiety and stress to come to the surface and take control. This anxiety and stress floods into the conscious mind which results in a panic attack (Cabot, 2009).


A study conducted by National Comorbidity Study-Adolescent Supplement noted that 2.7% of females aged 13-18 and 2.0% males aged 13-18 in the US will suffer from a panic attack at some stage in their adolescent life (Merikangas et al, 2010).


Freud notes that the subconscious mind has three psychological defence mechanisms it uses to try and control feelings of anxiety and stress before they flood into the conscious mind ( These are outlined below:

Suppression: This is when your mind tries to block the stress or anxiety.

Rationalisation: This is where the mind develops it own internal dialogue to try and make sense of a particular situation. 

This is where the mind converts the anxiety and stress into physical symptoms like headaches, muscular aches or other physical problems (Cabot, 2009).


If these 3 coping mechanism cannot control the anxiety or stress then a panic attack will occur. During a panic attack the body is flooded with adrenalin and noradrenalin which are hormones in the body. Adrenalin and noradrenalin stimulate and prepare the body for a flight or fight response. They speed up the rate of the heart beat, stimulate the rate of breathing and elevate blood pressure (Warner and Bott, 2010).

Other symptoms of a Panic Attack include:

  • Nausea
  • Intense fear of the unknown
  • Shortness of breath
  • Shaking and weak limbs
  • A feeling of loss of control and helplessness
  • A fear or avoidance of places where panic attacks have occurred in the past
  • Tingling and numbness in fingers. Toes and around the mouth
  • A feeling of imminent self harm (Marsh and Wolfe, 2004).

Cabot (2009, p87) notes that a panic attack will not cause any serious or significant medical problems. She continues by stating that a person who is prone to these symptoms and feelings needs to understand what is going on in their body during the attack, otherwise the frightening and unpleasant symptoms of the adrenalin flowing through the body can often make the panic attack much worse.

Coping strategies you can adopt to deal with a Panic Attack


    When you feel a panic attack starting, try and find a quiet place where you can lie down and breathe slowly and deeply. It is important that you try and focus on your breathing. As you breathe in try and feel the energy and strength coming back into you. As you breathe out, try and exhale the feelings of stress and anxiety out of your body (Cabot, 2009).

    Physical activity helps regulate the hormone levels in your brain. It is believed that anxiety and stress is a build up of unused energy. Physical activity helps burn this unused energy which helps reduce your stress and anxiety levels. Physical activity also reduces the hormone cortisol in your body which is responsible for the flight or fight response when you get anxious or stressed (Otto et al, 2007).

    Lie down and try and slow down the rate of your breathing by counting to three between each breath. Cabot (2009, p88) notes that during a panic attack your breathing is rapid which drops the level of carbon dioxide in your blood stream and this causes calcium to drop rapidly. Drops in calcium causes panic attack symptoms like shaking of limbs, tingling and numbness in fingers and toes.

    It is important to remember that panic attacks don’t last forever. Although you may feel overwhelmed and under siege when the attack is occurring, remember that you will always come through on the other side. When you experience the symptoms of a panic attack as identified above, try the techniques I have outlined in this article. Because every time you recognise and then confront a panic attack you become stronger and more aware by learning how to deal with these panic attacks in the future.







Cabot, Dr. S. (2009). Help for Depression and Anxiety. WHAS Publishing. Australia.

Merikangas, K.R. & J. H.E. & Burstein, M. & Swanson, S.A. & Cui, L. & Benjet, C. & Georgiades, K. & Swenden, J. Lifetime prevalence of mental disorder in U.S. adolescents: Results from the National Comorbidity Study-Adolescent Supplement (NCS-A). Journal American Academy Adolescence Psychiatry. 2010 Oct;49(10):980-989.

Mash, E.J. & Wolfe, D.A. Abnormal Child Psychology. 3rd Ed. 2004. Florence, Wadsworth.

Mental Health Research Institute (Australia)

Otto et al. Exercise for Mood and Anxiety Disorders. Prim Care Companion J Clinical Psychiatry. 2007; 9(4): 287–294.

Warner, L.A. & Bott, C. Epidemiology or Mental Disorders in Girls and Femal Adolescents. In a Public Health Perspective of Women’s Mental Health, B.L. Levin and M.A. Becker (Eds.) 2010. New York: Springer.




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