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Congratulations! You’re Having a Panic Attack!

With final exams and semester-long project due-dates right around the corner, I thought it would be helpful to post about what to do when you’re having a panic attack, and how to help yourself through it.

What is a panic attack?

A panic attack is defined by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America as “the abrupt onset of intense fear or discomfort that reaches a peak within minutes and includes at least four of the following symptoms: palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate; sweating; trembling or shaking; sensations of shortness of breath or smothering; feelings of choking; chest pain or discomfort; nausea or abdominal distress; feeling dizzy, unsteady, light-headed, or faint; chills or heat sensations; paresthesia; derealization or depersonalization; fear of losing control or ‘going crazy’; fear of dying”.

A lot of these symptoms are also associated with anxiety. What makes anxiety different from a panic attack is the intensity and length of the feelings. The ADAA notes that panic attacks “typically reach their peak level of intensity in 10 minutes or less and then begin to subside”.

Who gets panic attacks?

Most people who experience panic attacks also live with some form of anxiety disorder, though that is not a necessary prerequisite for one. Panic attacks can have a clear trigger, such as public speaking or driving over a bridge, or they can come seemingly out of the blue when you’re relaxed or even sleeping.

Okay, so what do I do?

The important thing to remember during a panic attack, and also one of the hardest things to do in the moment, is breathe, and breathe normally. When I’ve experienced panic attacks, one of the first symptoms is a feeling of breathlessness and difficulty breathing, so I start to hyperventilate. There are a few videos online of ways to keep your breathing normal, but when that fails, you can always fall back on the 4-7-8 technique: In for 4, hold for 7, out for 8.

When it happens to you

When you’re having a panic attack, you don’t want to spend time reading through my ramblings, you just want to get help. So here are some things to try/remember:

  • Try to focus on 5 different objects around you. Note their position in space, shape, shadows they might create, and colors
  • Breathe as normally as possible. Make sure you’re taking full, deep breaths in, and try holding that air for a beat before exhaling
  • Practice muscle relaxation techniques. Squeeze your fists as tight as you can and hold for 5 seconds, then fully relax them, uncurling your fingers and letting your palms open
  • Remember that you are not dying. It might feel like it, but you aren’t dying. You are okay, and this will pass
  • Tell someone. If you are by yourself, try calling a friend or family member

When it happens to a friend

Panic attacks are scary to experience and scary to watch. If a loved one is experiencing a panic attack, here are some things you can do to help:

  • First, make sure it is actually a panic attack and not something else. Ask them if they’ve experienced something like this before, and what they’ve done in the past. Be patient. Panic often limits people’s ability to process thoughts, so make sure you’re getting just the vital information. This isn’t 20 Questions
  • Move them away from excess stimuli. Lots of people and noise can exacerbate a tense situation so try suggesting a quieter, more secluded space. If walking for more than a few feet, keep an eye on them as balance and strength in legs can be affected
  • Help them control their breathing. Suggest they breathe in time with you, or a count
  • Distract. Panic requires a lot of focus, so bring their attention to something else. A funny cat video or that water stain on the wall that kinda looks like a face. Try to keep them from spiraling in negative thoughts
  • Give them space. It’s important to be there and keep an eye on people in the midst of a panic attack, but make sure you aren’t smothering them. Sometimes physical touch, like a hand on the back, can help ground a person panicking, but other times it just causes more problems. If they insist they need to be alone, give them some space. Just make sure they’re visible

Post panic attack care

You’ve done it. You thought you weren’t going to make it, but you did. Good for you! Now is the time to focus on your body and its needs.

  • Have a big glass of water. Your body just ran a marathon in a few minutes. Drink slowly, making sure you’re remaining hydrated
  • Take a hot shower or bath. Panic causes all your muscles to tense up. To avoid stiffness and sore body aches, try some heat therapy, particularly on the back
  • Journal your feelings. You just experienced a lot of things in a short period of time. To gather your thoughts and to purge them from your mind, try writing it all down. Later you can revisit the journal and sort through it all
  • Talk to a friend or loved one. Now is a great time to reach out to your support system. Even if you don’t feel like talking, knowing someone is there for you is a great help
  • Have a warm cup of tea. Just like the glass of water, tea will help with your hydration with the added bonus of relaxation if you’re drinking green tea, chamomile, or jasmine. Just avoid black tea
  • Talk to your therapist or doctor. Even if this panic attack is a one time thing, it’s important for you to have note of it in your medical record. Your doctors can help in reducing your everyday stress and teach you coping mechanisms to avoid panicking again.

Panic attacks can make you feel like the world is ending. Remember to take care of yourself and prioritize your health; physical and mental.

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