Have you experience a sudden bout of anxiety, fear, or dread? Perhaps your heart pounded, your chest tightened, and you felt like the walls were closing in on you. If so, you may have experienced a panic attack. Panic attacks are strong but short bursts of intense anxiety and fear and can impact you in emotional and physical ways. In fact, I’ve had people tell me “I thought I was having a heart attack!” They can be quite overwhelming.
Panic attacks are different than general anxiety or even situational anxiety. For one, panic attacks are more episodic than normal feelings of nervousness. These episodes can last, on average, anywhere from a couple of minutes to almost half an hour. Some examples of the typical symptoms could include:
These symptoms can certainly be overwhelming, but there are ways one can cope.
The first step to stopping a panic attack is determining if what you are experiencing truly is one. If you have a big test or interview coming up, some feelings of anxiety and stress are normal! However, if you find yourself frequently aligning with most or all of the symptoms I just mentioned, you very well could be experiencing a panic attack. Major stresses can cause them, but sometimes they may come on for no apparent reason as well. Once the manner of your situation is evaluated, there are steps you can follow in order to bring yourself down.
If you find yourself in the situation where your breathing becomes labored, try focusing your attention on deep breaths in order to slow it down. Gaining control of your breathing can help prevent hyperventilation, which can worsen other symptoms. Breathing in slowly through your nose and exhaling through your mouth is a common tactic used to tame quickened breathing. Short shallow breaths or breathing really fast will lead to hyperventilating, which is not going to help anything.
Also, if you slow down your breathing, your heart will have no choice but to slow down with it. Try box breathing. It’s a technique where you follow the pattern of a box and breathe in, hold, breathe out, and hold. Do this a few minutes and see how it helps.
Pivot your attention from overwhelming feelings to your physical surroundings. Some find it helpful to distract themselves by noting the detail of the things around them. For example, if you are looking at the lamp closest to you, note its color, shape and size. Think about how tall it might be, try to remember where it was bought, or how long you’ve had it. Diverting your focus and energy to other tasks or objects can help the symptoms subside.
Temperature changes on our skin can be a fast way to ground ourselves in the present moment. That term “go cool off” comes exactly from this. Try putting your hand in some ice, water, or holding some ice cubes in your hand or on the back of your neck. You can also hold a warm coffee or step outside and notice the temperature of the air. Pay attention to these temperatures, and how they feel on your skin as you experience them. They’re really helpful ways to get your brain paying attention to your body and what it is experiencing.
It is important to not blame yourself for the situation at hand. In fact, I want you to repeat to yourself, “I am worthy, I am valued, I am strong.” Repeating mantras like this can not only remind you of your worth but it can also help shift your attention to something positive.
Practicing these skills before an attack can make them easier to access when you need them. If the experience continues for longer than 30 minutes, especially after trying several tools, such as the ones listed here, consider seeking medical attention to explore other possible causes of your symptoms.
Samantha Morel, Ph.D.