Panic attacks are absolutely terrifying. Their technical definition is “an abrupt onset of intense fear or discomfort,” but those who have experienced one know – it feels like way more than that.
Panic attacks are physical and mental: racing heart, excessive sweating, shortness of breath, feeling like you’re about to die, can’t focus, or have no control. And lucky you… They can happen wherever and whenever…!
With one in ten adults experiencing this hellish feeling, it’s a common struggle to face. Whether your panic is stemming from work stress, relationships, or even PTSD or GAD, we’ve compiled a list of strategies based on your unique experience of anxiety attacks.
Techniques by symptom
You can’t control your own mind during a panic attack – which makes the symptoms even scarier. Regaining control involves taking advantage of what your brain is doing in the moment.
During an anxiety attack, our senses take over, and the brain stops thinking about what is relevant, in favor of what feels or seems relevant. So you need to jump in where your brain is automatically focusing – on the senses!
Because uncontrollable hyper-awareness drives a panic attack, the goal is to strategically distract yourself with anything that you’ll automatically process in a calming way.
Chest pain, muscle tightness, short breath: feels like a heart attack!
The scariest part of an anxiety attack is often the feeling of physical danger and unrest that underlies the whole thing. You might sweat a lot one time, or feel like you’re having a heart attack another. To tone down the feeling of danger, you can try a couple techniques:
- Safely notice sensations: put your right hand over your heart, on your neck, or even on your left side/ribcage. Focus on the temperature of your hand, how it changes, how the pressure feels.
- Discreetly comfort yourself: place your right hand on your left ribcage, and your left hand on your right upper arm. Remember this body is just your container, and that you are in control of this container! This exercise can also feel like a comforting hug, and doesn’t look strange to do out in public (it’s like crossing your arms).
- Visualize a safe space: Think of being somewhere that doesn’t remind you of the bad stuff, and that actively makes you happy. It could be laying out on the beach, or strolling around your cabin in the woods. Try to focus on the exact details and picture as much of it as you can. This is your happy place!
- Distract yourself and restore control: when you’ve lost all mental control to a panic attack, check in with your surroundings. A common one is the 5-4-3-2-1 technique, in which you look around and point out 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste.
- Preoccupy your mind until your body can calm down: try tasks requiring intense concentration, like long division problems or counting numbers out of order.
- Focus on something, anything: Whether it’s repeating a mantra or assessing everything about a focus object, get your mind stuck on something to help come out of a panic attack.
- Breathe, with help: Any guided breathing exercise on the internet will do, but here’s an easy one. Gently breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth, in time with the picture below. If the picture is too much, just close your eyes and count to four for each inhale and exhale.
- Talk to someone: Remember, panic attacks last only 15 minutes on average – even if it’s 15 minutes of torture, you will come out the other side! Call a friend when you feel it coming on, so they can remind you what’s happening and provide reassurance.
And if you can’t access a friend quickly enough, you can always turn to your online, anonymous support network.