What to do when you are having a panic attack

A panic attack can be one of the scariest moments of your life. Your heart starts racing. You begin to sweat. You may feel hot... or cold. The room begins to spin, and you feel that you're losing control. You were fine a minute ago and now you feel like something is wrong, you feel panic and fear set in. If you’ve experienced this before you know you’re having a panic attack, but you wonder why it still feels this scary. If you don’t know what a panic attack is and you’re feeling this way, it can be terrifying, you may even think that you’re having a heart attack and that death is imminent. Fortunately it’s not a heart attack, and you’re not going to die. You can learn to recognize that you’re having a panic attack and  use several strategies to help you better manage the symptoms.

Symptoms of a panic attack

Panic attacks represent an overdrive of your body’s fight or flight response kicking in. While situations like being chased by a lion are rare in modern life, your body is still wired to respond with this fight or flight system, even when the precipitating event is far from life threatening. 

There are several physical symptoms associated with this response, many of which are shared with other health conditions, like a heart attack. Many of the strategies listed later on help target these physical symptoms

Panic symptoms include:

  • Racing heart or feeling that your heart is going to burst
  • Chest tightness
  • Sweating
  • Numbness
  • Nausea
  • Light-headed and dizzy
  • Overheating or getting chills
  • Feeling out of control
  • Fear of dying
  • Feeling that you are "going crazy"

If you’ve had panic attacks before, here are 5 tips to help you make it through them and get back to your life. 

1. Knowledge is Power

The most important thing to know about panic attacks are not deadly and that they the symptoms will get better with time. Symptoms usually come on fast and tend to peak within around 10 minutes, but when you're in the middle of one, it can feel a lot longer. Just being aware of these facts can be extremely reassuring. When our mind can’t explain something, it can turn to the worst case scenario (“I must be dying”). Knowing that panic attacks will not kill you and that they’ll be over soon can help empower you to follow the below steps and help reduce your panic symptoms. 

2. Take a deep breath

This sounds cliché, but it actually works. The intense fear that you experience during a panic attack causes you to take quick shallow breaths causing you to hyperventilate. This can leave you feeling dizzy, lightheaded, and make it feel like your heart is racing. If you feel a panic attack coming on, or are in the middle of one, deep breathing can help.

One form of deep breathing you can try is called box breathing or square breathing. It's super simple, making it easy to remember when you are in the midst of a panic attack.

  1. Breathe in for 4 seconds
  2. Hold your breath in for 4 seconds
  3. Breathe out for 4 seconds
  4. Hold for 4 seconds
  5. Repeat

Deep breathing helps by forcing you to slow your breath which can also help reduce or eliminate other symptoms. It also helps by giving you something to focus on. Close your eyes and picture a calming scene or even just the numbers as you count them.

3. Change your surroundings

If you're in a busy place or one with a lot of stimuli, try to find a quiet place to go. Stepping away from bright lights, lots of sounds, and other people can help you to focus on your breathing and calm down. It will also allow you to focus on yourself without having to deal with people asking you questions like, "Are you OK?"

If you aren't able to change where you are, try closing your eyes. If you have headphones that you can put in with some calm music, give that a try. Doing this will help you to shut out the world around you and focus on slowing things down for yourself.

4. Give mindfulness a try

Mindfulness is more than just a popular buzzword showing up all around social media, it can play an important role in helping you feel better and less anxious. Several types of therapy even use mindfulness as a core component of treatment (such as some forms of CBT). 

If you're having a panic attack, it can help keep you grounded. To practice mindfulness, focus on the present moment and what your senses are taking in. What can you see? What can you hear? Are there any smells that you notice? What can you feel?

Don't try to pretend that you aren't experiencing feelings of fear or panic. Simply allow them to be: don't fight them, and don't judge them. This is a skill that therapy can help you develop. There are also mindfulness apps that you can try. A few popular ones include:

5. Get some outside help

If you struggle with panic attacks, don’t be afraid to reach out for help. This can be as simple as discussing your struggles with a trusted friend. At Mantra, we believe in a comprehensive approach to mental health challenges like anxiety. Meditation can be combined with the gold-standard therapy (CBT) to manage panic disorder. If those don’t work, medication can help reduce your symptoms and get you back to your life. This will help you overcome your struggles with anxiety and panic, and let you get back to accomplishing your personal and professional goals.