Panic attacks

Panic attacks are surprisingly common. Up to 40% of the population will experience a panic attack at some time in their life. Some people report that a panic attack feels like you’re ‘drowning and dying at the same time’.

Common symptoms include:

  • sweating
  • trembling or shaking
  • increased heart rate
  • chest pain
  • shortness of breath
  • feeling like you’re choking
  • nausea or pain in the stomach
  • dizziness, feeling lightheaded or faint
  • numbness or tingling
  • depersonalisation (feeling detached from yourself or your surroundings)
  • hot or cold flushes
  • fear of dying
  • fear of losing control, or that you’re going crazy
  • sense of impending doom or danger

During a panic attack, you may feel overwhelmed and disabled by the symptoms above. A panic attack will usually peak within 15 minutes and can take up to half an hour to subside.

How to manage during a panic attack

By grounding ourselves in the moment, we can take our attention away from our racing thoughts (which often serve to make the panic worse) and into the present. Using the 5-4-3-2-1 technique, you will purposely take in the details of your surroundings using each of your senses. Try and notice small details that your mind would usually tune out, such as distant sounds, or the texture of an ordinary object.

5. Whare the 5 things you can see? Look for small details such as a pattern on the ceiling, the way light reflects off a surface or an object you never noticed.
4. What are 4 things you can touch? Notice the sensations of clothing on your body, the sun on your skin, or the feeling of the chair you are sitting in. Pick up an object and examine its weight, texture, and other physical qualities.
3. What are 3 things you can hear? Pay special attention to the sounds your mind has tuned out, such as a ticking clock, distant traffic or trees blowing in the wind.
2. What are 2 things you can smell? Try to notice smells in the air around you, like an air freshener or freshly mowed grass. You may also look around for something that has a scent, such as a flower or an unlit candle.
1. What is 1 thing you can taste? Carry gum, candy or small snacks for this step. Pop one in your mouth and focus your attention closely on the flavours.

  1. Close your eyes. Breathe in through your nose while counting slowly to four. Feel the air enter your lungs.
  2. Hold your breath inside while counting slowly to four. Try not to clamp your mouth or nose shut. Simply avoid inhaling or exhaling for 4 seconds.
  3. Being to slowly exhale for 4 seconds.
  4. Repeat steps 1 to 3 at least three times. Ideally, repeat the three steps for 4 minutes or until the panic attack passes.

If counting to 4 is too difficult, try counting to three instead.

The body awareness technique will bring you into the here-and-now by directing your focus to sensations in the body. Pay special attention to the physical sensations created by each step.

  1. Take 5 long, deep breaths through your nose, and exhale through puckered lips.
  2. Place both feet flat on the floor. Wiggle your toes. Curl and uncurl your toes several times. Spend a moment noticing the sensations in your feet.
  3. Stomp your feet on the ground several times. Pay attention to the sensations in your feet and legs as you make contact with the ground.
  4. Clench your hands into fists, then release the tensions. Repeat this 10 times.
  5. Press your palms together. Press them harder and hold this pose for 15 seconds. Pay attention to the feeling of tension in your hands and arms.
  6. Rub your palms together briskly. Notice the sound and the feeling of warmth.
  7. Reach your hands over your head like you’re trying to reach the sky. Stretch like this for 5 seconds. Bring your arms down and let them relax at your sides.
  8. Take 5 more deep breaths and notice the feeling of calm in your body.

Whilst a panic attack can be scary and uncomfortable, it is not life-threatening. A panic attack does not mean that you have panic disorder, however, if your panic attacks become more frequent and they start to impact your ability to function day to day, contact the Health and Wellbeing Centre to access counselling support.

Get support

Health and Wellbeing Centre

Call or drop-in to the Health and Wellbeing Centre located at Peribolos East Ground Floor (PE101), Bundoora Campus, which operates Monday to Friday, 10am-4pm.

The Health & Wellbeing Mentors are available to offer drop-in sessions, provide information on accessing supports within the university including mental health, counselling, accessibility support and learning plans.


In an emergency ring 000 and then security 9479 2222.

La Trobe University Crisis Line

Use our La Trobe University Crisis Line for out-of-hours mental health and wellbeing support

  • Phone: 1300 146 307
  • Text: 0488 884 100

This service operates 5 pm - 9 am on weekdays and 24 hours during weekends and public holidays.




Self-Help Programs

  • Panic Disorder Self-Help Resources offers free self-help resource with workbooks, information sheets and worksheets to support your panic symptoms by Centre for Clinical Interventions.
  • Mental Health Online offers free self-guided programs and therapist-assisted programs for a small fee.