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The University of Southampton
Enabling ServicesPart of Student Services

Panic

Panic is a word we commonly use to describe anxiety or fear.  A true "panic attack" is a state of heightened anxiety or physical arousal that often seems to occur without warning.  It is a very intense physical response that lasts anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes, accompanied by a sense of fear.

If you have more general and less intense feelings of anxiety, which you may have been thinking of as "panic attacks", find out more about anxiety, stress and exam stress.

A panic attack occurs when you experience a sudden rush of intense psychological and physical symptoms. Some people feel a sense of unreality.

Panic attacks often happen without warning, and you may feel very frightened, but panic attacks are not dangerous. People are not normally admitted to hospital due to a panic attack.

As a student, you may be vulnerable to anxiety associated with deadlines and exams. Some people describe such anxiety as feeling panicky. Read more about anxiety to see why most anxiety is understood to be different from a panic attack.

In some cases, the stress of exams and the demands of study may lead to panic attacks.

Symptoms of a panic attack

The physical symptoms in a panic attack are caused by stress hormones being released in your body as part of the normal human fight or flight response, making your heart beat faster and your muscles tense up. Your breathing speeds up too. Physical symptoms may include:

  • The sensation that your heart is beating quickly (palpitations)
  • Nausea
  • Sweating
  • Trembling
  • Shortness of breath
  • Choking sensation
  • Chest pain
  • Needing the toilet

Psychological symptoms include:

  • Feelings of unreality
  • Frightening thoughts such as "I felt like I was going to faint", "I thought I was going to have a heart attack", "I thought I was going to die", or "I could not catch my breath".  These thoughts will feel real and genuine and will understandably frighten you.

People who have experienced a panic attack may struggle to leave the house or make excuses to avoid going out.

There are things you can do to reduce the impact of a panic attack. Visit web pages where you will find good detailed advice from the NHS.

People experiencing a panic attack often focus on the physical symptoms, which are likely to make the feelings of panic worse.  This is known as hypervigilance.

Learn more about why panic attacks make you feel afraid. Improved understanding may help you recall positive thoughts which help you feel calmer. See the resources tab for some suggested on-line resources.

Slow your breathing

Fast breathing raises the level of carbon dioxide in your blood. If you are breathing quickly during a panic attack, slowing this down can ease your other symptoms. Try these techniques:

  • Breathe in deeply through your nose
  • Breathe out slowly through your mouth
  • Focus your thinking on the word "calm"

When to seek help

A panic attack can make you feel like you are about to die but is usually harmless once the symptoms pass. In some cases, you may need medical advice to rule out an underlying physical cause.  Seek medical or psychological advice if:

  • Your panic attack continues after following calm breathing techniques for 20 minutes.
  • You still feel unwell after your breathing returns to normal.
  • You still have a rapid or irregular heartbeat or chest pains after your panic attack.
  • You regularly have panic attacks, as this could be a sign that you have panic disorder.

Treatment

Panic attacks can be effectively treated in many cases by psychological therapy.

The NHS Steps to Wellbeing service offers effective treatment such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for common mental health problems, including panic. Clinics take place at the University, and you can refer yourself. Steps to Wellbeing is available to students registered with a Southampton GP; similar services such as iTalk and Talking Change are available in surrounding areas.

In Case of Panic

An online publication by Five Areas Online that can help in the event of a panic attack.

Centre for Clinical Interventions

An online resource containing 12 modules providing information about panic attacks and suggested strategies for how to manage your panic and anxiety.

NHS self-help guides

A range of self-help books (available also as MP3 downloads) covering such topics as Anger, Anxiety, Bereavement, Alcohol and You, Depression, Eating Disorders, Panic, Social Anxiety and Stress.

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