Written by Shannon,
9 Minute Read
Medically reviewed by:
Erin O'Callaghan, PHD
Director of Therapy
10 Minute Read
When you begin to experience a panic attack, the feeling can be all-consuming, overwhelming, and downright terrifying. Panic attacks can induce significant physical symptoms, not just mental symptoms, and these can even be serious enough to be mistaken for medical issues such as a heart attack, stomach upset, or breathing problem.
So, what should you do when a panic attack strikes? What if a panic attack happens when you are in public? How can you cope?
Fortunately, there are some tips, tricks, and techniques that may help you find some peace and comfort when you are going through a panic attack, and this is your guide to restoring some calm. Let’s get into it.
How To Cope During a Panic Attack
Common symptoms associated with a panic attack can make it very difficult to think clearly, let alone try to cope and manage the attack.
Physical symptoms of a panic attack include :
- Palpitations, pounding heart, accelerated heart rate
- 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
- Numbness or tingling sensations
- Feelings of unreality or being detached from oneself
- Fear of losing control or “going crazy”
- Fear of dying
That said, it is possible to curb a panic attack, and practicing these techniques may make it easier for you to recall them in moments where you need them most.
You can take control of your panic attack by:
Accepting the feeling, recognize your panic attack for what it is, and reassure yourself it will pass.
For some people, a panic attack starts when you notice some kind of unwanted physical symptom: it could be a heart flutter, dizziness, or muscle tension. From here, you may misinterpret these symptoms as dangerous, and your fight-or-flight response gets triggered, thus inducing a panic attack.
You can curb this impending panic attack by recognizing your initial symptoms for what they are- for example, tell yourself that a heart flutter is nothing more than a heart flutter. Additionally, remind yourself that panic attacks are brief and not long-lived.
From here, try mindfulness or grounding techniques — breathing techniques are especially helpful.
Another important thing to remember for someone who is having a panic attack is to acknowledge that these symptoms are “just” a panic attack. They can repeat some statements to themselves like: “I’ve had panic attacks before, and I made it through those.” Or, “I’m not sick or having a medical emergency. These are classic symptoms of panic attacks that I’ve had before.” Or, “I can get through this. I’ve done it before, and I’ll do it again now.”
Pay attention to your breath and breathe mindfully.
Shallowed or otherwise labored breathing is a very common symptom associated with a panic attack, which is why bringing your focus to your breath may help.
Inhaling for a count of 4, holding your breath for a count of 7, and then exhaling and making a “whoosh” sound for a count of 8 can help you slow your breathing and get things under control. Repeat this as needed.
Mindfully relax your muscles.
Panic attacks can cause every muscle in your body to become tense and stiff, so being conscious of this and working to relax each muscle individually may help you calm down. You can start by focusing on relaxing the muscles in your feet and ankles, then your legs and knees, and so on. Take a few moments to focus on each muscle group at a time before you move on to the next.
Think about your symptoms objectively.
Taking on the position of an observer allows you to notice how you feel without intervening and trying to fight it off. Frantically attempting to fight the symptoms of a panic attack may make matters worse, so observing instead and rating your discomfort on a scale of 1-10 for each symptom may help you slowly start to relax.
Try grounding techniques.
Grounding yourself during a panic attack can help bring you back to reality and focus your mind on the present. You can practice grounding by using all of your senses to notice the things around you. One suggestion is to step outside if possible, especially if your panic attacks can be triggered by claustrophobia or social overstimulation, and use all of your senses to experience your surroundings.
Pay close attention to what you can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch, and continue this process until you feel yourself start to let your guard back down.
What colors and shapes do you see? What are the sounds? Birds chirping, cars honking, kids playing? How about the smells — fresh air, the bitterness of vehicle exhaust, flowers, or nearby food? Next, what sensations can you make yourself aware of? How do your feet feel on the ground, or where is your hand and what is it touching? Is there wind blowing on your face? Finally, do you taste anything? Can you still taste that soda you drank half an hour ago, or do you have a piece of gum you can chew?
This can help you realize that there is no danger at hand, and your body may begin to relax.
Implementing these strategies regularly whenever you feel anxious may help you remember to use them when a panic attack strikes.
Prevention: Focus On Managing or Reducing Your Stress
With panic disorder, panic attacks often have no tangible triggers, but there is a connection between feelings of stress and the occurrence of panic attacks, so practicing self-care and adjusting some lifestyle habits can help.
Here are a few ways that you can better manage the stress in your life:
- Avoiding or limiting alcohol or caffeine consumption
- Making sure to get enough sleep
- Eating regular, well-balanced meals
- Getting plenty of exercise
- Relying on your support network — this could mean speaking with your friends, family, or other loved ones when you are feeling anxious. Confiding in someone you trust can help take the edge off, and may bring you comfort or at least can alert somebody so that they are prepared to help you if a panic attack happens.
- Practicing meditation or other mindfulness techniques
Taking good care of your overall health and wellbeing can help you more easily manage and cope with your stress or anxiety.
A good rule of thumb is to make sure you are taking time to regularly practice self-care. Self-care means different things to different people, but generally, it entails doing things that you enjoy and taking some time to relax and let yourself recharge. By practicing daily healthy habits and self-care, you can reduce your symptoms of anxiety. Making sure you’re getting at least seven to eight hours of sleep per night, cutting down on alcohol and caffeine, taking a relaxing bath, or dedicating some time to your favorite hobby or passion are all great examples of self-care, and doing these things can help get you into a more calm and positive headspace.
Why It Might Help To Seek Out a Professional
Seeking professional help can be very beneficial, especially if you are struggling to gain control over your anxiety or panic attacks.
While panic attacks can happen to anyone, it becomes panic disorder when you’ve had one or more panic attacks that are followed by one month or more of the following:
- Persistent concern about additional attacks
- Worry about the implications of the attack or its consequences
- A significant change in behavior related to the attacks
Additionally, the panic attacks shouldn’t be accounted for by another mental health condition, and they shouldn’t be caused by a physical health condition or are the effects of substances like drugs or alcohol.
Speaking with a mental health professional may help you understand why your panic attacks happen, what your triggers are, and how you can work to overcome them, and a professional can also work with you to create a personalized treatment plan.
At Brightside, we are devoted to offering you the anxiety care you deserve, and we work hard to craft a personalized treatment plan for you.
Once you take our free online assessment, we will pair you with a psychiatric provider and therapist who will be there to help you and support you every step of the way, whether you are looking for medication, therapy, or some combination of the two.
With science-backed approaches and evidence-based therapy, Brightside can get you the care you need right from the comfort of home.
The Bottom Line
When a panic attack strikes, you may experience a variety of frightening physical symptoms including a racing heart, chest tightness or chest pain, trembling and shivering, difficulty breathing, and a feeling of impending doom or danger.
Panic attacks can be very scary and overwhelming, but there are a few techniques that may help you calm yourself down when an attack happens out of nowhere. Mindful breathing, muscle relaxation, acceptance, and grounding practices are all great ways of relaxing your mind when you are overcome with panic, and methods of prevention and stress reduction may help reduce the frequency of your panic attacks.
It can sometimes be hard to get a good handle on panic attacks on your own, and this is where professional help can come in handy.
Brightside is here to help with anxiety care from the comfort of home.