5 Ways to Cope with a Panic Attack

If you’ve ever had a panic attack, you know how frightening they can be.  A panic attack can leave you feeling scared, helpless and confused. Panic attacks can be triggered by something specific, but often come on unexpectedly or out of the blue. They also can be so physically intense, they can make you feel as if you are having a heart attack or losing control of your body.

So, what is a panic attack and how do you know if you are having one? A panic attack is a sudden, intense experience of fear, terror or discomfort that is accompanied by strong physical symptoms (see below). Panic attacks last for a discrete period of time, usually reaching their peak of intensity around 10 minutes.

Panic Attack Symptoms

These are the most common panic attack symptoms:

• Shortness of breath

• Hot flashes or chills

• Sweating

• Trembling or shaking

• Choking

• Chest Pain

• Nausea or abdominal discomfort

• Heart palpitations or accelerated heart rate

• Dizziness or lightheadedness

• Numbness

• Feeling disconnected from yourself or your body

• Fear of “losing control” or “going crazy”

• Fear of dying

According to the American Psychiatric Association, if you have experienced four or more of these symptoms along with feelings of intense fear, it is likely that you have experienced a panic attack. If so, you may be afraid that you are going to have another attack, or perhaps you already have experienced multiple attacks.

Panic Attack Treatment

Thankfully, there are ways to cope with panic attacks.  A panic attack occurs when the body’s nervous system activates the fight or flight response in the absence of a real life-threatening trigger. This happens when—for some reason—your nervous system is out of balance or “stuck” on high alert. Through various tools and techniques, you can calm your nervous system and reduce the intensity and frequency of future panic attacks.

The first step is to learn to recognize the early signs or symptoms of a panic attack. What does it feel like when you are starting to panic? Which symptoms do you notice first? Does your heartbeat quicken? Do you begin to shake or sweat? Recognizing these early signs allows you to begin to address the symptoms, lessen their intensity or even stop the onset of a full-blown attack.

As soon as you realize you may be starting to panic, try some of these tools:

1.  Use calming self-talk. Remind yourself that you are safe. You are experiencing anxiety, nothing more. Panic attacks can feel life threatening because of the intensity of the symptoms. Reminding yourself that you are OK can be helpful.  Although the anxious symptoms are unpleasant, they cannot hurt you.  You’ve survived these symptoms before and you can again.
2.  Orient yourself to your present surroundings. Another way to calm the panic attack symptoms is to shift your focus to something neutral or safe, such as your current environment. Notice your surroundings. Where are you? What do you see? If you are in your office, for example, notice the objects on your desk.  Name or describe them to yourself. Touch your desk or chair with your hand and notice the textures or temperatures you feel.
3.  Engage in some simple tasks. When you engage in simple activities, your nervous system often interprets this as a signal of safety. Try counting backwards by two from an odd number. Slowly drink a glass of cold water. Name five blue or brown objects you see in your environment.
4.  Get moving.  Walk around the room. Notice your feet as they make contact with the floor or ground. If you feel like to you have more energy to release, do some more rigorous exercise that you enjoy. This will help dispel the energy associated with the fight or flight response.
5.  Slow your breathing. Slowing your breathing can help reduce some of physiological symptoms associated with panic attacks.  If possible, take slow belly breaths for three to five minutes or until you notice symptoms starting to slow or subside. With belly breathing, your stomach should rise and fall as you breath in and out.  To help pace your breathing, count to five with each inhale and exhale.

If you continue to experience panic attacks or feelings of anxiety, therapy can help. Sometimes, gaining a deeper understanding of the possible triggers or causes of your anxiety can further the healing process, and help you bring balance and peace to your life.