Reviewed by Beth Pausic, Psy.D
Written by Our Editorial Team
If you’ve ever had a panic attack, you know that the answer to the question “How long do panic attacks last?” is “seems like forever.”
Panic attacks, anxiety attacks — whatever you call them, they can leave you breathless and fearing for your safety, confusing them with a heart attack and making unnecessary and frightening trips to the emergency room.
The good news is that — unlike statistics class, dental appointments, your boss’s story about his weekend plans and all Monday mornings — panic attacks aren’t a permanent state. In fact, they may pass before you’re even able to seek medical care.
The bad news, as you may have suspected, is that it’s tough to remind yourself that a panic attack will end… while panicking.
We can’t snap you out of it mid-panic, of course, but below, we’ve gathered information on how long panic attacks and their aftereffects may last, why panic attacks happen and some coping strategies.
Read on to put yourself at ease.
Panic disclaimer: panic attacks won’t start and stop on a dime — they don’t stick to a schedule, but they also will have a firm “end.” And that end is typically just a few minutes away.
The reason we know this is anatomical. As experts will explain, panic attacks are a result of a triggered fight or flight response (more on that later). Our bodies literally can’t sustain the fight or flight response for longer than a few minutes, so while those minutes may be agonizing, they’re a finite amount of time.
According to the NIH, a panic attack’s onset will come fast, with physical symptoms peaking and beginning to decline within 10 minutes. That’s about half an episode of The Office, or the length of a very generous “best moments” clip reel from season eight of Game of Thrones.
Unfortunately — like that last season or Michael Scott’s awkward moments — panic attacks can feel endless. And that’s a problem when you consider what an anxiety attack puts your body through.
Common symptoms of a single panic attack include:
Pounding heart or increased heart rate
Fear of dying
Shortness of breath
Depersonalization and derealisation
We also have to caution that you may not exactly be out of the woods — or done with panic symptoms — after a panic attack does pass. Some symptoms may linger, and attacks can happen in succession.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), panic attacks are abrupt surges of intense discomfort and fear. In other words, they’re what happens when you crank your anxiety to 11. They’re the number one symptom of panic disorder (obviously) — arguably the most severe form of anxiety disorder. If you’re looking to learn more about these anxiety disorders, check out our guide for more on the differences between panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.
We don’t really understand what triggers panic attacks. They may have many triggers, including other mental health conditions like agoraphobia, but may also occur without a trigger.
Though the causes likely differ from one person to another, the effects are usually similar — including the average amount of time they’ll last.
The causes of panic disorder itself also differs from person to person— there are many theories on the root causes of panic disorder, and all of them could be true. Genetic history (like a family member or relatives who experience panic attacks), life events, stressful situations, social phobia, previous trauma and stress are all factors that may increase someone’s risk of panic disorder and panic attacks.
While some people can take them in stride, they’re serious for many others. In fact, panic disorder accounts for the most medical visits of any anxiety disorder.
Panic attacks are hard to predict, plan for or manage in the moment, and so for most people, prevention strategies are the best coping option you have.
If you’re looking for preventative treatment options, therapy, anxiety medication and lifestyle changes can all help reduce the frequency and intensity of panic attacks.
Medications like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, are believed to help your brain manage its levels of available serotonin, a neurotransmitter that affects your mood. SSRIs are currently considered a first-line treatment for panic disorder, though other types of antidepressant medication may be effective if you don’t see benefits from SSRIs.
Therapy, like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), is designed to help with mood disorders and mental health issues. For a person with panic disorder, CBT can help them manage spiraling anxiety or calm themselves mid-attack with practice and time. Also consider support groups if your panic is tied to a particular trauma.
Lifestyle changes are about reducing your risk opportunities for panic attacks, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Getting sleep, eating well, laying off the nicotine and caffeine — all of these can potentially lessen the frequency and severity of your panic attacks. Habits like mindfulness and relaxation techniques, including deep breathing techniques, can help, too.
Defeating panic attacks is a process, and that process has a starting point. So, let’s end our discussion with some takeaways on the length of and treatment for panic attacks.
TIME is relative, but for most people, a panic attack will clock in under 10 minutes. Unfortunately, panic attacks can recur one after another, which can make it seem endless.
YES, it’s possible to reduce the frequency and severity of future panic attacks with therapy, medication and all of those other resources we just mentioned. But before you go downloading a meditation app or trying to self-medicate, you need to talk to a mental health professional.
NO two people are exactly the same, and each person experiences panic disorder episodes differently than others. Your treatment needs to be tailored to your needs, and that may mean a different ratio of therapy to medication, or more lifestyle changes.
If you’re ready to talk to a healthcare professional, consider using our resources. We offer online therapy and online psychiatry where you can be connected to the right mental health professional for your comfort, and our mental health resources are a great place to learn about medication, symptoms of a panic attack and all things brain-related.
If you don’t pick us, get help regardless. The more support you have, the less reason you’ll have to panic.
Start your mental wellness journey today.