Have you ever had a panic attack?

They’re awful, aren’t they?

I’d say that they’re up there with some of the scariest things I have ever experienced. Especially as the physical symptoms can appear almost instantly and be very debilitating.

Often it feels like you are not in control of your body, you may feel like you are going to faint, fall, throw up or even die.

Yup, pretty scary right?

This article will therefore explain what panic attacks are as well as what the symptoms are, how to deal with them and where to find help!

Crushed piece of paper that says Panic Attacks in bold red writing

Well, first off, it is most definitely worth noting that panic attacks will pass, and with strategies that work for you, you can become well prepared to deal with them.

Mostly, panic attacks are not dangerous depending on the context in which they occur.

For example, if you’re driving a car or operating heavy machinery during a sudden onset – then panic attacks may pose a threat, but other than that, you will be okay!

It is just your body’s fight, flight or freeze response kicking in at the wrong time. The timing can vary from person to person and for a huge range of different reasons.

How do I know if I’m having a panic attack?

Common symptoms of panic attacks include:

  • Rapid heart rate
  • Sharp chest pains
  • Nausea and dizziness
  • Choking sensation
  • Detachment (disconnecting from your body or surroundings)
  • Rapid breathing
  • Dry mouth
  • Catastrophising (e.g. thinking you are going to die)
  • Tingling sensation
  • Numbness
  • Jelly legs
  • Feeling faint
  • Severe sweating
  • Shaking or shivering
  • Shift in body temperature (either very hot or very cold)

That list is very daunting in itself, but not all of these will occur during a panic attack, you may experience a select few, but that doesn’t make them any less debilitating.

These symptoms can last for anything between 2 and 30 minutes, but symptoms usually peak at 10 minutes.

Annoyingly, they use up a lot of the body’s energy too, so you may be left feeling quite tired after one.

According to the Mental Health Foundation, if they last for any longer than that then you may have been unfortunate to suffer from multiple panic attacks at the same time – but this is rare.

It is also worth noting that they are different to anxiety attacks, as explained wonderfully by Jayne Leonard here. The article explains that anxiety attacks are slightly different in that they occur in response to a perceived threat, vary more in intensity and can last over long periods (minutes, hours, days etc).

So, we’re aware of what a panic attack is – but how do we deal with them?

An arrangement of colourful flowers pictured to look like a set of healthy lungs, to suggest and depict breathing.

How do I deal with a panic attack?

Whilst different things often work for different people, it is best to be prepared for the possibility of a panic attack as it can be very difficult to know when or where you’re going to experience one.

Here are 4 different types of activities that you can do if you are experiencing a panic attack:

  1. Breathing Exercises

Have you ever tried boxed breathing? This can be a useful technique to slow down and regulate your breathing. It goes like this:

Step 1: Breathe in through your nose whilst slowly counting to four.

Step 2: Hold your breath whilst counting to four.

Step 3: Exhale for four seconds.

Step 4: Repeat steps 1-3 four times.

You may want to focus on a square object to help you with this. Follow the edges with your eyes as you breathe.

  1. Grounding Exercises

Similar to breathing exercises, these grounding techniques will help to slow you down, prevent a thought spiral and bring you back to ground.

Here are some examples of ways to ground yourself (don’t worry, these are different to the techniques your parents may have used when you were being naughty as a child):

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Name 5 things you can see

4 things you can feel

3 things you can hear

2 things you can smell

1 thing you can taste

Music

Type in ‘Weightless Part 1 – Marconi Union’ to your preferred music streaming platform and pay close attention to the song. (I was genuinely surprised by how effective this has been at slowing down my heart rate).

Tongue Twisters

Feel free to choose your own from the many that I’m sure you’ve heard over the years, but here is one of my favourites.

‘One smart fellow, he felt smart. Two smart fellows, they felt smart. Three smart fellows, they all felt smart.’

Muscle Relaxation

You may need to practice this beforehand, but it works in a similar way to the breathing exercises.

Start at the bottom of your body and consciously relax one muscle at a time and work your way up.

Focus Objects

This one is probably the most simple. Pick an object and focus on it. I mean really focus on it. Pay attention to its colour, its shape, its purpose and anything else to do with that object.

I’d recommend staying in one spot depending on the intensity of your panic attack, but if you feel like you can move to go and find a strange object, this may help too.

  1. Mantra Repetition

A common feature of many mantras is acceptance. First you must recognise that you are having a panic attack and repeat short sentences that will hopefully work to calm you down. Don’t try to fight your panic attack, because this will only intensify the symptoms and negative thoughts.

You may want to build up your own mantras and repeat them during an onset, but they need to serve as a constant reminder that you are okay and that your panic attack will not last forever.

Sometimes a simple ‘I am okay, this will pass’ will do the trick.

  1. Thought Challenging

Common thoughts during a panic attack either relate to severe overestimation or catastrophising. It is so important to remember to challenge these thoughts.

Here are 2 quick ways to challenging those negative overestimations:

Prove it – e.g. What evidence do I actually have? Is this just the panic attack talking? How likely is this to happen?

OR

Accept it – e.g. I’m having a panic attack, this is a natural thought. What is the worst thing that has happened in this situation before?

  1. Bonus Tip: Use Lavender

I didn’t know this before researching for this article, but Lavender has been widely used to ease intense symptoms of anxiety.

This article explains it best, but smelling Lavender for around 3 minutes, using oral supplements or rubbing it on your wrists or neck can be a good way to slow your heart rate, regulate breathing and reduce your adrenaline.

You may also want to get help with panic attacks.

If you get frequent panic attacks then you may suffer from panic disorder, which may lead to avoidance and agoraphobia.

Professional help is always recommended if your panic attacks occur regularly at random times and without a trigger.

Where can I get help for panic attacks?

Well first of all, there are ways that you can reduce your likelihood of a panic attack and strategies that you can use to prepare yourself for them.

You can:

  • Practice breathing exercises
  • Adopt mindfulness techniques
  • Follow a healthy diet
  • Limit caffeine intake
  • Learn more about panic attacks, you can do so by clicking here
  • Get help with anxiety management, including using self-help apps/ resources

However, you may also want to get professional help and you could do so by talking to your GP or Therapist – they may recommend:

  • Applied Relaxation
  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
  • Exposure Therapy
  • Self-Help Resources – such as this resource from No Panic
  • Medication (commonly benzodiazepines)

Or something else that is tailored to your needs.

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