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About panic attacks

Most people have experienced a sense of panic at some time in their life. It is a normal reaction to a life-threatening situation, for example a house fire or road accident. Panic usually takes the form of an extreme feeling of fear and dread and the overwhelming desire to escape the situation.

Feelings of panic are an instinctive reaction to prepare our minds and bodies to react to a life-threatening situation. The feelings usually disappear gradually after the frightening event has passed. However, some people experience panic when there is no threat or frightening event - this can lead to a panic attack.

The symptoms of a panic attack are very distressing and can include:

  • a pounding and racing heart, even feeling your heart is stopping or missing beats
  • shortness of breath or a feeling of choking
  • tremors or violent shaking
  • tingling or numbness in your fingers and toes
  • feeling sick, dizzy and sweating
  • a feeling of losing control of your bladder or bowels, which can cause temporary incontinence
  • a fear that you are about to die
  • a sense that you, or things around you, are not real
  • feeling you are losing control of your mind
  • feeling aggressive towards anyone who gets in your way of escape.

Things to think about

In trying to understand why a child or young person may be having panic attacks, ask yourself whether they:

  • worry a lot or have low confidence?
  • have recently experienced bereavement or parental separation?
  • have experienced any trauma in the past?
  • are under any stress at school, for example exams, changing schools or being bullied?

It is important to realise that the child or young person may not know why they are having panic attacks.

If a child or young person has panic attacks regularly, this can interfere with their normal daily activities like school and social life.

As well as dealing with the panic attacks, the child or young person often has to deal with the fear of having further attacks, feelings of embarrassment about their behaviour during an attack and teasing from other young people.

Having panic attacks can lead children and young people to avoid certain situations. It is also stressful for a child or young person to explain seemingly irrational fears and behaviours to parents, teachers and other young people.

This BBC video tells the stories of two young people who have experienced panic attacks: