Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 10/31/2022
Panic attacks: they can leave us breathless and fearing for our safety. If you’ve ever had one, you know that the answer to the question, “How long do panic attacks last?” is, “Seems like forever.”
The good news is that panic attacks aren’t a permanent sensation — they may pass before you’re even able to seek medical care. In fact, in terms of things like statistics classes, dental appointments, your boss’ description of their weekend plans and Monday mornings, panic attacks are relatively short-lived.
The bad news, as you may have suspected, is that it’s tough to remind yourself to set a 30-minute timer at the beginning of a panic attack.
While they are often the result of mental disorders, it’s hard to think about anything else as your heart rate climbs.
And it’s also tough to remind yourself they’re going on when they’re going on.
People struggle to interrupt panic attacks when they happen, but one of the most effective ways to increase your chances of interrupting a panic attack is to learn the telltale signs of one so that you’re more likely to realize it’s happening.
Maybe the most important thing to consider, though, is why these uncomfortable experiences happen — let’s start there.
Panic attacks are the number one symptom of panic disorder — arguably the most severe form of anxiety disorder. For one, panic disorder accounts for the most medical visits of any anxiety disorder.For another, the signs and symptoms of this condition can be severe.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders, panic attacks are abrupt surges of intense discomfort and fear. These come on without warning and may or may not have specific triggers.
Unfortunately like the immediate causes of a panic attack, though, there are many theories on the root causes of panic disorder, and all of them could be true.
While the causes likely differ from one person to another, the effects are usually similar — including the average amount of time they’ll last.
Panic attacks won’t start and stop on a dime to fit into a time estimate, but they’re also not going to go on forever.
Here’s the good news: your body literally can’t sustain the fight or flight response for longer than a few minutes. So, while those minutes may be agonizing, there’s not much in the way of real-world fear that it’ll go on forever.
Generally speaking, a panic attack’s onset will be nearly immediate, with 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 8 of Game of Thrones. Unfortunately, like that last season or Michael Scott’s moments of awkward silence, panic attacks can feel endless.
Common symptoms of a single panic attack include:
Fear of dying
Shortness of breath
Depersonalization and derealisation
Luckily, these symptoms of panic won’t be hitting you for hours or days, but while they are hitting you, they can pack quite a punch.
And while we’re certainly here to remind anyone experiencing a panic attack right now that it’s almost over, we do have to caution that after an attack does pass, you’re not exactly out of the woods — or done with panic symptoms.
Panic attack symptoms don’t generally last much longer than the ten-minute mark, as we’ve pointed out, but when we talk about a firm stop time for the symptoms, things can get a little tricky.
Unfortunately, as some people who suffer from panic attacks may already be aware, you’re not really limited to one panic attack. Panic attacks can recur, and they can do so in succession, which means that you might be under repeated attacks for multiple hours.
If you’ve experienced this before, it can feel a little like a mental leg cramp that just won’t go away: it’s paralyzing and, to a certain extent, it can be very uncomfortable.
Here’s the thing most people don’t consider, though: panic disorder isn’t just about the attacks themselves, but about the damage the attacks can do.
While the immediate effects of panic attacks may subside, there can still be less intense, persistent issues after a panic attack occurs.
One of the diagnostic requirements for panic disorder is actually that in the month following one of them, you see ongoing worry about the implications of panic attacks, adjustments to your routines due to the attacks and ongoing anxiety about the next panic attack.
Those sound like anxiety symptoms to us (especially the one that used the word “anxiety”), and insofar as they’re symptoms of a panic disorder, they’re certainly an appropriate answer to this question.
By now you’re probably understanding just how paralyzing panic attacks can be. If you’re wondering how someone can make them stop, we’ve got you.
Education, therapy, anxiety medication and lifestyle changes can all help reduce the frequency and intensity of panic attacks.
And if you’re already involved in one of those (you are — you’re educating yourself right now) then congratulations. The rest of the tools on that list can also be useful, and you might want to employ everything to see the best results.
Let’s look at the prevention side of things for a moment.
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, are believed to help your brain manage the levels of available serotonin in your brain. And because this neurotransmitter may affect your mood (among other things in your body), these medications may help balance your mood.
SSRIs are currently considered a first-line treatment for panic disorder, though other types of antidepressant medication may be effective if you’re unable to see benefits from SSRIs.
Experts also generally recommend cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for panic disorders. CBT is a type of therapy designed to help someone with mood disorders and mental health issues sort through the thoughts in their head and reject the ones that aren’t healthy.
For a person with panic disorder, that can mean learning to stop yourself mid-attack to reject the idea that you’re in danger. With practice and time, it can be an effective way to reduce the in-the-moment symptoms of a panic attack.
By the way, those lifestyle changes are really just about reducing your risk opportunities. Getting sleep, eating well, laying off the nicotine and caffeine — all of this can help your body generally feel better and potentially lessen the frequency and severity of your panic attacks.
In the moment, mindfulness, slow breathing techniques and CBT can be effective ways to take a panic attack’s momentum right out from under it, reducing the intensity of your emotional and even physical symptoms.
But defeating panic attacks is a process, and that process has a starting point. So, let’s end our discussion with your treatment beginning.
Unexpected panic attacks can really feel like other medical conditions in the moment, but after a period of time, most people notice the pattern. Seeking treatment for panic attacks and the underlying mental health condition causing them is a necessity.
Yes, it’s possible to reduce the frequency and severity of future panic attacks with therapy and 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 get a professional involved. You need to talk to a mental health professional.
Getting a mental health professional involved in your panic attack treatment isn’t just about access to medication or therapy — it’s also about charting the right course for your needs.
No two people are exactly the same and no two people have the same experience with panic disorder. 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 someone, consider using our resources. We offer an online therapy platform where you can be connected to the right therapy professional for your comfort, and our mental health resources are a great place to learn about medication, symptoms of panic attacks 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.