What is a panic attack and why do we have them?

17 April 2022

Emeritus Professor Justin Kenardy from UQ’s School of Psychology explains panic attacks in this Sydney Morning Herald article.

Scary as they can be, panic attacks are actually common. Two in five Australians will have one at some point in their life, and they don’t only affect people with diagnosed anxiety disorders.

While symptoms vary, at their core they’re an expression of severe anxiety.

“So it’s almost no surprise it’s common because a condition of being alive is that you get anxious,” says Emeritus Professor Justin Kenardy.

A panic attack can’t be only mental, nor can it be exclusively physical, Kenardy says.

The two seem to be wrapped together in a vicious cycle. If a researcher asks somebody with anxiety to hyperventilate, they’re highly unlikely to manufacture a panic attack.

Kenardy is keen to clear up a common misconception that people who panic might be seen as not as effective, not as capable – and that couldn’t be further from the truth.

"People who panic are often the high-achievers … the ones who are really pushing themselves hard and expecting much from themselves,” he says, adding they perhaps overlook the psychological impact that the stress is having.

If you’re frequently under high stress – it could be due to work or the pandemic – you may be more easily tipped into a panic attack, too.

“Everyone’s capacity to manage stress differs and also changes constantly.

“This can be associated with your body’s – including your brain’s – inherited and learned capacity, and the changing demands you face.”

Read the article