Promoting mental health, demystifying mental illness, countering stigma and discrimination

Panic Attacks & Disorders

What are Panic Disorders?

Panic attacks are feelings of severe anxiety that start quite suddenly and can last for an hour or more leaving the person quite exhausted. They are sometimes called "anxiety attacks". Panic attacks happen when there is no real danger. They may start for no obvious reason.  Panic attacks are so unpleasant that people are more afraid of having another one. They often remember the first attack for the rest of their lives.
If you have a panic attack, the feelings may be so scary that you feel that you are about to collapse, have a heart attack, or go out of your mind. People suffer a fight or flight syndrome. They want to exit the event when they should stay and often blame the very people who are trying to help them.

People who have frequent panic attacks, once a month or more, suffer from a panic disorder.  Although most of the symptoms and treatments are the same, panic disorder is a more serious and life disrupting form of panic attacks.

Anxiety: Persistent and unrealistic worries
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: Compulsions and Obsessions

Phobia: Intense irrational fear of everyday objects and situations

How common are Panic Attacks and Disorders?

Panic attacks are common. Many people will have at lease one attack in their lifetime. Panic Disorder is also quite common. About 30% of the population will have this disorder at some time in their lives. Women are affected twice as much as men.

What causes Panic Attacks and Panic Disorders?

There are many causes of panic.
  • Panic runs in families - you are more likely to have panic attacks if your parents have had them.
  • Personality may play a part. Some people are more nervous or 'highly strung' than others.
  • Adverse events and stressors in life can make a person more vulnerable.
  • Some common substances can cause panic e.g. panic sufferers may be very sensitive to caffeine.
  • Over-breathing or hyperventilation is a problem common to most panic sufferers.

Individual panic attacks may be triggered either by situations or certain thoughts. Attacks can be started by any situation that makes you anxious. They can also be triggered by anxious or catastrophic thoughts. Even the decision to face one's fears may trigger an attack.

How are Panic Attacks and Panic Disorders Treated?

Psychotherapy is recommended for someone experiencing moderate to severe panic attacks or panic disorder. Depending on the severity of the attacks, medication in combination with psychotherapy is recommended. The prognosis for the recovery from panic attacks is variable. With appropriate treatment and support, most people can deal with their symptoms successfully and get on with their lives again.

Who do I see about Panic Attacks or Panic Disorder?

The first health professional to see is your GP. He or she, if necessary, will make a referral to a more specialised mental health professional.

The following websites provide information on Panic Disorder:

A NZ website with resource information on most mental illnesses including Panic Disorders.
An international website with information on most mental illnesses.

National Institute of Mental Health (US) Anxiety Disorders - Education Programme

New Zealand Guidelines on Assessing and Treating Anxiety Disorders

NZ website with information about phobias and related disorders.

An Australian charity helping people affected by mental illness.

A site developed by Child & Adolescent Services, Taranaki Health, working with youth, covering many mental health issues.

Like Minds Taranaki gratefully acknowledges the financial support of this website by the Ministry of Health

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Taranaki Mental Health Sector