What causes panic attacks and what can you do about them? 

Panic attacks can trigger extreme fear, and even feel life-threatening. But this common mental health condition is treatable.

When ABC news weatherman Nate Byrne recently revealed he’d suffered multiple panic attacks on live TV, it sparked a welcome discussion on what’s often an incredibly frightening experience.

While panic attacks are quite common – singer Jessica Mauboy and actor Hugh Sheridan are among others who have spoken of their experiences – many people don’t understand why they happen, or how to treat them.

What causes a panic attack?

A panic attack can occur out of the blue, or it can be triggered by a particular situation – such as being on a plane or stuck in a confined space.

Australian Psychological Society president Tamara Cavenett says there’s often two or three stressful events in the lead-up to a panic attack.

She says the multiple stresses can accumulate and speed up your breathing, which means you’re taking in too much oxygen.

That can quickly lead to hyperventilation and then a panic attack.

Sydney Phobia Clinic clinical psychologist Corrie Ackland says her first panic attack occurred at 17 when a teacher chastised her for mixing up an assignment’s due date.

“Interestingly, the very next time I was in that class and I was spoken to by that teacher, not even negatively, it triggered another panic attack,” Corrie says.

What does a panic attack feel like?

Panic attacks are sometimes mistaken for heart attacks as the symptoms can be similar – tightening chest, accelerated heart rate, sweating.

While both events are alarming, chest discomfort from a panic attack will still in the chest – whereas with a heart attack it’s likely to radiate to other areas.

A panic attack can also induce strong feelings of anxiety or fear, trouble breathing, weakness or dizziness, stomach pain or nausea.

Tamara says panic attacks can be hard to identify, because you may not think you’re facing any particularly panic-worthy situation.

“So the body will get quite scared, because it can’t connect why it’s experiencing such a high degree of panic and what’s causing it,” Tamara says.

While the experience is different for everyone, and is generally not dangerous, it can be very frightening.

Tamara recommends getting checked by a doctor to rule out any potential medical condition.

How to deal with a panic attack

While you should see a psychologist if you experience multiple panic attacks, Tamara says there’s plenty of ways to help yourself in the meantime.

One tip is to distract yourself in the initial moments.

“Some people will count objects in a room, and classify them – so there’s two grey chairs, there’s three plants,” she says.

Tamara says while you’re doing this, slow your breath rate, but do not take a deep breath in straight away.

“What you want to do is push the air out, then take a breath in and then slow your breath,” she says.

Preventing – or minimising – future panic attacks

Tamara says much of the population will experience a panic attack in their lifetime.

“But when you know it’s interfering with your daily life, or getting in the way of anything you want to do, that’s the moment to go and see a psychologist,” she says.

Panic attacks are highly treatable, and Tamara says psychologists’ gold standard treatment for panic attacks is exposure therapy.

“The biggest thing I work with people on is them really understanding what’s going on, so they don’t have to be afraid of it,” she says.

Written by Larissa Ham.