Panic attacks are abrupt attacks where you feel fear, discomfort, and like you’re losing control even when there’s no danger. These attacks occur out of the blue with no warning and some symptoms can feel like a heart attack.
Panic attacks are typically short, reaching their peak in less than 10 minutes. An attack usually lasts anywhere from a few minutes up to 30, though repeated attacks can recur for hours.
Here’s what you need to know about the length of a panic attack, and how you can cope or prevent it from occurring.
Most panic attacks last only a few minutes — though they often feel like a lifetime when you’re experiencing one. Symptoms typically peak within 10 minutes and then begin to fade away.
It’s possible to have a panic attack that’s especially long or short. Some attacks can peak in a few seconds, with the entire attack lasting just minutes, while others may last longer.
Most research has described single panic attacks lasting up to 30 minutes. Some reports by individuals have described attacks lasting hours or even days.
According to some experts, if symptoms don’t peak within 10 minutes, it’s not considered a panic attack (which has a sudden onset of panic). Instead, it’s considered high anxiety. While this is still incredibly uncomfortable and unpleasant, it may not be diagnosed as a panic attack.
It’s also possible to experience multiple panic attacks that occur in waves for an hour or longer.
While symptoms of panic attacks can vary, they often include:
- racing heart
- sweating or chills
- shortness of breath
- chest pain or discomfort
- fear of losing control or of dying
- nausea and other stomach discomfort
In a panic attack, symptoms come on suddenly, peak, and then gradually fade away.
Physical symptoms are often the first to subside, though depending on your anxiety levels, you may continue to hyperventilate and experience chest and abdominal discomfort. After the comedown of the attack, you may also feel tired or tension in your muscles.
The main symptoms that can linger are behavioral or cognitive symptoms. General anxiety may persist after the attack. People often continue to worry about their lack of control. If you experience pain, a fear of death may persist until you see a doctor.
First things first: Breathe. You’re probably hyperventilating, but stabilizing your breathing can quickly calm your body’s fight-or-flight response.
Try counting your breaths. One deep breath in, one deep breath out. Count up to 10 and then start again until your breathing is back to normal.
Other quick coping strategies include:
- recognizing that what you’re experiencing is a panic attack
- finding an object to focus on
- practicing muscle relaxation
- repeating a mantra
You don’t have to live your life in fear of panic attacks. There are several tools and techniques you can use to help manage your attacks and even prevent them.
A good way to prevent panic attacks is to create a plan that will help you feel more in control. If you have a plan worked out for when an attack comes on, you can potentially shorten the duration and frequency of attacks.
Your plan might include:
- practicing a deep breathing exercise or doing progressive muscle relaxation
- focusing a grounding technique like the 5-4-3-2-1 technique
- reading a sheet of paper describing panic attacks, to help rationalize the fear of dying
- having a short list of mantras either on a sticky note or in your phone to open, saying something like “I am going to be OK, these are just symptoms of panic.”
You may want to seek support and let your family, friends, or coworkers in on your plans for when you’re in specific situations.
- At home, you can teach your partner or roommate a relaxation technique that they can do with you when you’re in the midst of an attack. Breathing together may help you feel more grounded and focused.
- At work, you may want to simply give a trusted coworker or boss a heads up that you experience panic attacks. Sharing this information can feel scary, but it can also make your office feel like a safer space.
Other ways to prevent future attacks include:
Learn about panic attacks and anxiety
Knowledge is power. With more information about panic attacks, you can be aware of your symptoms, feel more in control, and shorten your attacks.
While many people experience a panic attack just once or a few times, others experience them as part of an existing anxiety disorder. Learning about anxiety can help you better manage it.
Practice relaxation techniques
Meditation, breathing exercises, and muscle relaxation can all help in the moment of a panic attack. But learning and practicing these techniques beforehand is essential so that you’re ready when one happens.
Regular exercise has shown a number of benefits for both mental and physical health.
Exercising, especially high intensity or cardio workouts, can even mimic symptoms of panic attacks. By exercising regularly, you can train your body and mind to realize that those symptoms — racing heart, sweating, breathing hard — don’t always indicate panic.
You may also reduce your stress, which can trigger panic attacks.
Avoid smoking, alcohol, and caffeine
Certain substances are known to trigger anxiety and sometimes panic attacks. If you notice that your panic attacks occur around the time you’ve consumed a stimulant such as coffee or another substance, it may be helpful to limit or avoid them and see if your attack frequency changes.
These substances may also increase the intensity of an attack, so avoiding them could help ease symptoms.
Get enough sleep
Sleep deprivation can make coping with stress more difficult and increase your anxiety levels. That’s why it’s important to maintain good sleep hygiene.
Panic attacks can feel very scary, especially when experiencing one for the first time. But it doesn’t mean you automatically have an anxiety disorder — you can have panic attacks without a mental illness.
Seek help if:
- you have several panic attacks or experience them chronically
- your anxiety is affecting your daily life
- you’re having difficulties coping
There are so many options available to you, and your doctor can even help you set up plans, share literature, or check your vital signs to ease your mind.
If you often experience a fear of dying or worry that something is truly wrong with your health, see a doctor. They can run tests to check your overall health, or specifically the health of your heart.
Having a clean bill of health can give you peace of mind. You can even keep a printout of the results. This sheet of paper can be part of your plan to pull out during an attack to remind you that you’re going to be all right.
Panic attacks may come without warning and feel uncomfortable, but they won’t last forever. In fact, while they may feel longer, most panic attacks only last around 10 minutes.
If you begin to experience anxiety symptoms that affect your daily life, your attacks increase in intensity or duration, or you just need extra help with coping, reach out to a mental health professional.
For those who seek treatment from a mental health professional,