When I have to speak up in class, I can feel my heart thumping in my chest and I can barely hear my own voice.


Did you know this?

During a panic attack, you lose control of your anxiety. A panic attack peaks for a few minutes and usually fizzles out on its own after 30-60 minutes. If the attacks recur regularly and the fear of having a panic attack begins to define your life, you may have a panic disorder. 2% of students have this disorder. A panic disorder often first manifests itself between the ages of 15 and 30, and is more common among females than among males. Treatment can be very effective.

An overwhelming fear

Everyone feels stressed and anxious once in a while. Both stress and anxiety are basic emotions that can be highly useful to help us react to difficult and threatening situations quickly and effectively. When you come across a threat, your built-in stress response system is activated and multiple hormonal reactions enable you to shift into a state of alertness and respond appropriately.

During a panic attack, your built-in stress-response system kicks in and you experience physical symptoms in addition to extremely anxious feelings.

Common symptoms in a panic attack are:

- Sweating, trembling or shaking

- Shortness of breath

- Fast, pounding heartbeat

- Chest pain or headache

- Numbness or tingling

- Dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting

- Fear of losing control or death[RT1]

- Fear of going crazy or losing self-control

- Fear of fainting or dying

- Feeling of being detached from reality

Panic attacks can be overwhelming. Especially the symptoms of palpitations and difficulty breathing can make you feel like you are losing control, having a heart attack or even dying.

It's good to know that a panic attack is not dangerous and the attack will subside on its own after no more than an hour. That being said, after the attack you may still feel shaky and tired.

A panic attack may result from a dangerous situation such as an accident or fire. But sometimes there is no obvious cause: you think something is dangerous when in fact it is not. You are more likely to have a panic attack if you are highly stressed and tired, if more people in your family also have panic attacks, and if you have already had a panic attack once.

When panic takes over

If panic attacks occur frequently, you may have panic disorder. The fear of having a panic attack completely takes over your daily life.

The fear of panic attacks can be so paralyzing that you avoid certain places, situations or activities such as the place where you had the attack. Panic disorder is therefore often combined with agoraphobia: the fear of open spaces.

Panic disorder has a serious impact on your life and often you end up in a vicious circle: you start avoiding more and more and become more and more anxious. A panic disorder is often also accompanied by depression.

Strategies to make panic attacks less overwhelming

You may not be able to stop panic attacks, but you can use strategies to make them shorter and less overwhelming. The best way is to take your mind off what you are feeling and thinking, and focus on something that distracts you and brings you into the present moment.

These tips can help you if you are having a panic attack:

  • Try to control your breathing. Breathe in slowly in 3 counts and out slowly in 6 counts.
  • Talk to yourself. Remember that a panic attack in itself is not dangerous and will pass. Saying to yourself, "I'm having a panic attack." "This will pass," "I'm not going to die," or "I'm not having a heart attack" can help you calm down.
  • Name objects, or count in order. Naming the objects you perceive in your environment or counting can help you shift your attention from the panic symptoms to your physical environment.
  • Grab something cold or smell and taste something strong. By drinking a glass of very cold water, splashing your face with cold water, or sucking on a sour sweet or strong mint, you can stimulate your sense of smell or taste to drown out the part of your brain that is panicking.

Preventing panic attacks

Even though panic attacks are unpredictable, the following steps can help prevent them:

  • Create structure in your day
  • Avoid triggers such as caffeine, alcohol and smoking
  • Get enough sleep and eat a balanced and healthy diet
  • Exercise and sport regularly
  • Invest in relaxation and delve into mindfulness, yoga or breathing exercises.
  • Write down your fears. This will help you recognize them more quickly in the future and replace them with more positive and reassuring thoughts.

Anxiety under control

The online self-help programme Stress and Anxiety consists of 6 sessions that help you control your stress and anxiety.

Talking about your fears can provide relief and support.


Talk about it

Panic attacks can be very stressful. Are you experiencing panic attacks and worried about them? An important first step in coping is to talk about them. This can be a relief and help you get things straight.

Talk to somebody you trust and feel good around, preferably someone you know, like a good friend, your parents or siblings.

If you struggle to talk to someone in your close surroundings, try to approach a person who is familiar with similar experiences, such as a GP or a student advisor at your college or university.

Would you prefer to share your story anonymously? You can always get in touch with Awel (102 or awel.be) or Tele-Onthaal (106 or tele-onthaal.be). For questions about suicide, contact the Zelfmoordlijn (1813 or zelfmoord1813.be)

Seek help

Can't reduce/stop the panic attacks yourself? Then there are good treatment options.

Psychotherapy can help you understand the causes of your anxiety and learn coping strategies to work on your panic attacks and avoidance behaviours. In this way, you can break the vicious cycle of anxiety. Mindfulness, training to stop worrying and relaxation therapy can also help break the pattern of anxiety.

Medication can help prevent panic attacks or reduce their severity. A GP will discuss with you what options are available in your situation.

Feared and conquered: students & expert sharing their experiences

Anxiety, stress and depression. Sooner or later, many students will have to deal with these issues to some extent. In this episode, our host addresses this topic together with her guests, Birthe and professor Patrick Luyten (KU Leuven & University College London), who is specialized in mood disorders.

Worried about a friend?

Have you noticed a friend dealing with anxiety and stress, and are you worried about them? Talk about it and share your concerns. Try to be understanding and listen to their story without judging them.