Panic Stations
Module 1
Overview of Panic
Understanding Panic and Fear 2
Panic and Anxiety 3
Anxiety Symptoms Worksheet
Module Summary
About This Module 9
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Module 1: Overview of Panic
Panic and anxiety can affect any kind of person at any stage of their life. In fact, it is estimated that about 1
in every 30 people experience significant panic at some time in their life. So remember, you are not alone.
The aim of this InfoPax module is to provide you with some general information about panic attacks and
panic disorder, and to describe the types of symptoms common to panic.
Understanding Panic and Fear
To understand panic, we need to understand fear. You can think of fear as an automatic alarm response
that switches on the moment there is danger. Think about what would happen to you if a dangerous animal
approached you. For most people it would be panic stations! You, and almost everyone, would go through
a whole series of bodily changes, like your heart pumping, breathing faster, sweating, all in order to respond
to the danger in front of you. This alarm response would probably lead us to either run for our lives or
become sufficiently ‘pumped up’ to physically defend ourselves. It is, in fact, an important survival
Sometimes, however, it is possible to have this intense fear response when there is no
danger in a way, it is a false alarm that seems to happen when you least expect it.
This initial panic attack is the same brief, intense episode of fear or uneasiness that
you might have in response to realistic danger, but it happens in situations that most
people would not be afraid about. It is like someone ringing the fire alarm when there
is no fire! Let’s have a look at some of the symptoms of a panic attack:
Skipping, racing or pounding heart
Dizziness, lightheadedness, feeling faint
Trembling or shaking
Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
Choking sensations
Feeling things around you are strange, unreal,
detached, unfamiliar, or feeling detached from
Chest pain, pressure or discomfort
Nausea, stomach problems or sudden diarrhoea
Fear of dying
Many people experience some mild sensations when they feel anxious about something, but a panic attack
is much more intense than usual. It includes 4 or more of the above symptoms, and peaks within about 10
minutes. As you can see from the list, many of the symptoms are similar to what you might experience if
you were in a truly dangerous situation. A panic attack can be very frightening and you may feel a strong
desire to escape the situation or to seek emergency assistance.
Panic disorder is used to describe the condition where panic attacks seem to happen unexpectedly rather
than always in predictable situations. Importantly, someone with panic disorder has a persistent fear of
having another attack or worries about the consequences of the attack. Many people change their
behaviour to try to prevent panic attacks. Some people are affected so much that they try to avoid any
place where it might be difficult to get help or to escape from. When this avoidance is severe it is called
If your symptoms are very severe or if a doctor has not checked your symptoms, it is
important to have an assessment conducted by a qualified health professional. It is important
to ensure that these symptoms are the result of anxiety and not caused by something else.
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Panic and Anxiety
When we talk about a panic attack, it is very much a sudden and intense episode of physical and
emotional reactions. However, when we are anxious we often feel similar symptoms, such as tensing up to
prepare ourselves for what might happen next. You might think of anxiety as worry or nervous
apprehension about the future, a sense that you cannot control or predict future events.
Feeling anxious and afraid is very much a part of the experience of being human. Although you might not
think so, anxiety can actually be helpful. Feeling a little anxious about something means we will be more
alert and responsive to our environment, just as athletes often “pump themselves up” before an event. It is
only when there is a very high level of anxiety that it might begin to cause us some difficulties.
Fear is also part of being human. As mentioned, fear is a true alarm that signals imminent danger and allows
our bodies to respond to increase our chances of survival. However, there are other times when real
physical danger isn’t there. Think about a person walking through a poorly lit alley at night. They might feel
anxious because they are worried that something dangerous may happen. Now, there may or may not be
anything dangerous in the alleyway, but what is important is that they believe there is something dangerous.
It is this belief that causes the anxiety.
When there is real danger, or when we believe there is danger, our bodies go through a series of changes
called the fight/flight response. It helps us to respond to real physical threat. When a person’s fight/flight
response is activated, three major types of responses occur. These include physiology (body responses),
behaviour (action responses), and cognitions (thinking responses).
When we become anxious and afraid, be it in response to physical threat or in situations where there is no
real danger, our bodies experience several changes. Some of these symptoms have already been mentioned,
such as heart pounding, breathing more quickly, sweaty palms, and lightheadedness. These are common
reactions that occur when we become anxious.
Think about some of your own physical responses when you become anxious - what do you notice?
You might think you are alone in reacting this way, but really, we all experience these types of reactions
when we experience fear and anxiety. Basically, our bodies are designed to release certain chemicals when
we believe a threat exists, in case we need to either run away, or stand and be ready to fight. There are
important reasons why these reactions occur.
An increase in heart rate and strength of heart beat enables blood and oxygen to be pumped
around the body faster so you might feel like your heart is ‘pounding’.
An increase in the rate and depth of breathing in order to compensate for the anticipated
increase in carbon dioxide production and use of oxygen. You may start to sigh, to yawn, or notice
breathlessness, choking or smothering feelings, tightness and pain in the chest. This response also
reduces the blood supply to the head, and while not dangerous, you might feel dizziness, light-
headedness, blurred vision, confusion, feelings of unreality and hot flushes.
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A redistribution of blood from areas that aren’t as vital to those that are, such as away from
skin, fingers and toes towards large vital organs. Your skin might look pale or you might feel cold, or
there might be a feeling of numbness and tingling in your fingers and toes.
An increase in sweating causes the body to become more slippery, making it harder for a predator
to grab, and also cooling the body, preventing it from overheating.
Widening of the pupils of the eyes lets in more light and enables you to better scan the
environment for danger. You may notice blurred vision, spots before the eyes, or just a sense that the
light is too bright.
Decreased activity of the digestive system allows more energy to be diverted to fight/flight
systems. A decrease in salivation may leave you with a dry mouth and decreased activity in the digestive
system may lead to feelings of nausea or a heavy stomach.
Muscle tension in preparation for fight/flight results in subjective feelings of tension, sometimes
resulting in aches and pains and trembling and shaking. The whole physical process is a comprehensive
one that often leaves the individual feeling quite exhausted.
As you can see, these physical alarm responses are important when facing danger, but they can also occur
when there is a false alarm, when there is no danger.
Hyperventilation and anxious breathing
You probably already know that we breathe in to obtain oxygen and we breathe out to expel carbon
dioxide. The body naturally maintains optimal levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide, and this balance is in
part maintained through how fast and how deeply we breathe. When we exercise, for example, we breathe
faster and more deeply in order to replace the oxygen being used and expel the extra carbon dioxide
produced by metabolic changes. Anxiety causes an increase in our breathing rate, as part of the physical
fight or flight response to a perceived threat. However, when our breathing rate increases without any
physical exertion, we breathe out too much carbon dioxide. If the body cannot quickly return carbon
dioxide levels to the optimal range, we experience further symptoms such as dizziness, light-headedness,
headache, weakness and tingling in the extremities and muscle stiffness.
Some people who have panic attacks may overbreathe, producing these sensations of anxiety. For people
with panic, these physiological sensations can be quite distressing as they may be perceived as being a sign
of an oncoming attack, or something dangerous such as a heart attack. We will discuss this in more detail
when looking at beliefs and cognitions about physiological sensations.
When we feel anxious or expect to feel anxious, we often act in some way to control our anxiety. One
way you may do this is by keeping away from situations where you might have panic attacks. This is called
avoidance, and might include:
Situations where you’ve had panic attacks in the past
Situations from which it is difficult to escape, or where it might be difficult to get help, such as public
transport, shopping centres, driving in peak hour traffic, places where medical help is not available
Situations or activities which might result in similar sensations, such as physical activity, drinking coffee,
having sex, emotional activities such as watching horror movies or getting angry
What kinds of situations/activities do you avoid so as not to have a panic attack?
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A second action response may be to behave differently, or to use “safety behaviours”. For example, you
might make sure you are next to an escape route, carry medication with you, or ensure that you are next
to a wall to lean on. Or do you try to distract yourself from your anxiety by seeking reassurance, reading
something intently, or bring music to listen to? Although this may not seem harmful to begin with, if you
become dependent on them it can be even more distressing if one day it’s not possible to use them.
How do you behave differently as a result of your panic attacks?
These action responses may have been used so often that they have become a familiar way of life to you, a
habit that you don’t really think about. However, you can unlearn the “anxiety habit” and build new habits
for coping with your anxiety and panic.
There are a number of thinking responses or cognitive changes that are associated with anxiety and panic.
Firstly, as a normal part of the fight/flight response, we begin to shift our attention to our surroundings and
search for potential threat. This is a helpful response in physically dangerous situations, but it is not so
helpful in other situations. It becomes very difficult to concentrate and attend to your ongoing activities
because you are scanning your environment for danger. When there are no external signs of danger, you
may start to scan internally for evidence of threat, focusing on physical sensations such as a pounding heart
or sweating. This often results in people thinking that there is something wrong with them - they must be
going crazy or dying.
Secondly, some types of thoughts are often associated with panic disorder
1. Catastrophic thoughts about normal or anxious physical sensations (eg “My heart skipped a beat - I
must be having a heart attack!”)
2. Over-estimating the chance that they will have a panic attack (eg “I’ll definitely have a panic attack if I
catch the bus to work”)
3. Over-estimating the cost of having a panic attack: thinking that the consequences of having a panic
attack will be very serious or very negative.
When you become anxious, what kinds of thoughts do you have?
These three types of responses: physiology, behaviour, and cognitions, all combine to form the experience
of anxiety and panic. Some reactions may be more noticeable than others may, but they are all important
components and will be addressed throughout the modules.
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Fear or panic?
As we mentioned earlier, panic symptoms are very similar to fear symptoms. When we become afraid, we
have an automatic alarm response that allows us to prepare to fight or flee. So, if we are confronted by a
wild animal, or more commonly these days a dangerous situation on the roads, we tend to respond
with that automatic alarm system. Some people might say that they “panicked” in these situations. When
we are talking about panic disorder, however, we usually refer to “panic attacks” that don’t seem to be in
response to those dangerous situations.
Panic Disorder
We’ve briefly discussed that we use the term “panic disorder” when someone has panic attacks that seem
to happen unexpectedly, and when there is significant anxiety about having another panic attack. Panic
attacks can happen when the person perceives internal symptoms that might signal that something
dangerous or terrible will happen, perhaps as a heart attack or losing their mind. We will discuss this in
further detail in the next module.
In addition to being prominent in panic disorder, panic attacks can also occur in other anxiety problems.
You’ve probably heard about various phobias mentioned in movies and on television, where people show
an intense fear of things like spiders, elevators, or public speaking. People who have social anxiety, for
example, may have a panic attack when they have to give a presentation to people because of their intense
anxiety about the situation. As with the description of panic attacks earlier in this module, this intense fear
occurs in the absence of actual physical danger. Instead, it occurs in the presence of a perceived threat.
Even some phobias that may seem to be in response to possible physical danger, such as with snakes, or
spiders, the “alarm” occurs even when the person is not directly confronted by the danger (eg the spider is
several metres away rather than in front of their face). So, people who are intensely afraid of particular
situations, objects, or animals may also have panic attacks in relation to situations that are feared intensely.
Nocturnal panic
Sometimes, people who have panic disorder have “nocturnal panic”, or panic attacks that occur during the
night when they are sleeping. These panic attacks similarly occur unexpectedly, rather than due to other
prompts such as nightmares or unexpected sounds. This may seem quite curious, because most people
would think that this is when they are most relaxed. In fact, studies have shown that nocturnal panic often
occurs when the person is falling into a deep sleep, when their bodies are beginning to relax and “let go”.
These changes in physiological sensations can be detected by the brain because our
brains continue to process information during sleep. For people with panic disorder,
these changes may be interpreted as a signal that something dangerous might
happen, such as a heart attack, resulting in a sense of panic that wakes them from
their sleep.
It can happen to anyone
While you may think that only people who have anxiety problems have panic attacks, it may actually be a
more common experience in the wider community. There are some suggestions that around 1 in 10
individuals has had a spontaneous, unexpected panic attack.
Now that we have talked a little about what panic attacks are and when they occur, we can begin to look
more closely at how they happen, how panic disorder develops, and what can be done about it. We will do
this in Module 2. On the next page is a worksheet where you can summarise your symptoms of panic.
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Anxiety Symptoms Worksheet
Anxiety symptoms can often be grouped into 3 categories. Some symptoms are of the
physical or body type, for example, shortness of breath, tightness in the chest,
lightheadedness, etc. Some symptoms are of the cognitive type which may include thought
responses such as, “I’m going to have a heart attack”, “I’m losing my mind”, etc. The third category of
symptoms is to do with your behaviours or actions, how you act and behave as a result of your anxiety, for
example: avoiding public transport, carrying something to read as a distraction, not drinking coffee, etc.
Throughout this module, you have been asked about some of your body responses, thought responses and
physical/body responses. You can summarise your responses on this sheet.
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Module Summary
Panic attacks are brief, sudden surges of intense anxiety, with symptoms that are very similar
to intense fear. The term panic disorder is used when panic attacks seem to happen
unexpectedly and where there is excessive anxiety about panic attacks.
The fight/flight response is a normal human reaction that occurs in response to fear when a
person is in physical danger. Sometimes it is also activated when there is no real danger. This
includes three major types of reactions:
Body responses such as increased heart rate, increased breathing, increasing blood towards
muscles and important organs, sweating, and muscle tension.
Behaviours such as avoidance of feared situations or changing your behaviour in those
Thinking responses such as searching for threatening information in anxious situations, which
reinforces the general belief that you will be negatively evaluated by other people.
Although panic and fear can be very similar, the term “panic attack” refers to a surge of
intense fear. Panic attacks can occur under a number of conditions
For people who have panic disorder, panic attacks happen unexpectedly and there is
considerable distress about having future panic attacks.
People who have phobias may also have panic attacks in relation to the feared situation or
Some people with panic disorder may awake from their sleep with a panic attack after they
have been sleeping. Some people may process physiological changes related to deep sleep,
interpreting them as dangerous, and awake in a panic.
In the next module we
will look a bit more
closely at how panic
attacks and panic
disorder develop.
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About This Module
Paula Nathan (MPsych*)
Director, Centre for Clinical Interventions
Adjunct Senior Lecturer, School of Psychiatry and Clinical
Neuroscience, The University of Western Australia
Dr Helen Correia (MApp Psych*; PhD)
Centre for Clinical Interventions
*MPych/MApp Psych: Masters of Psychology (Clinical Psychology)
Some of the material in this module was taken from
Nathan, P.R., Rees, C.S., Lim, L., & Smith, L.M. (2001). Mood Management Anxiety: A Cognitive Behavioural
Treatment Programme for Individual Therapy. Perth: Rioby Publishing.
The concepts and strategies in this module have been developed from evidence based psychological
practice, primarily Cognitive-Behaviour Therapy (CBT). CBT for panic disorder is a type of psychotherapy
that is based on the theory that panic disorder is a result of problematic cognitions (thoughts) and
behaviours. There is strong scientific evidence to support that cognitions and behaviours can play an
important role in panic disorder, and that targeting cognitions and behaviours in therapy can help many
people to overcome panic disorder. Examples of this evidence have been reported in the following:
Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists Clinical Practice Guidelines Team for Panic
Disorder and Agoraphobia. (2003). Australian and New Zealand clinical practice guidelines for the
treatment of panic disorder and agoraphobia. Aust N Z J Psychiatry, 37(6), 641-56.
These are some of the professional references used to create this module.
Barlow, D.H. (2002). Anxiety and Its Disorders: The Nature and Treatment of Anxiety and Panic (2
London: Guilford Press
Craske, M.G., & Barlow, D.H. (2001). Panic disorder and agoraphobia. In D.H. Barlow (Ed.), Clinical
Handbook Of Psychological Disorders, Third Edition. New York: Guilford Press.
There have been many other information resources written for people with panic attacks and panic
Barlow, D. H., & Craske, M. G. (2000). Mastery of your anxiety and panic (3rd edition). San Antonio, TX:
The Psychological Corporation. (ISBN: 0127850783)
Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists. (2003). Panic Disorder and Agoraphobia:
Treatment Guide for Consumers and Carers. Available: (click
on “Panic Disorder and Agoraphobia”). Accessed Feb. 2004.
Zuercher-White, E. (1998). An End To Panic: Breakthrough Techniques For Overcoming Panic Disorder (2nd
Edition). Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications. (ISBN: 1-57224-084-9)
We would like to thank Uta Juniper for the title of the InfoPax that this module forms part of:
Nathan, P., Correia, H., & Lim, L. (2004). Panic Stations! Coping with Panic Attacks. Perth: Centre for Clinical
ISBN: 0-9751985-8-0 Created: June, 2004.
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