Panic attacks are episodes of sudden and intense fear, sometimes making the sufferer feel like they are suffocating or having a heart attack. Fortunately, most panic attacks aren’t physically harmful, but they can be very disturbing and disruptive.
Panic attacks are relatively common and are nothing to be ashamed of. They seem to affect women more than men but overall hit about 1 in 10 people. Most are isolated incidents and aren’t considered a “disorder” unless the attacks occur frequently, or the fear of panic attacks becomes a problem itself.
The average panic attack lasts 15 to 20 minutes, and the physical symptoms include extreme anxiety, terror, racing heart or heart palpitations, sweating, trembling, shortness of breath, chest pain, nausea, dizziness, stomach pains, headache, or a ringing in your ears. There are a number of emotional symptoms as well, including a sense of impending doom, intense fear or anxiety, repetitive worrying, and feelings of detachment or disconnection from reality.
How to Deal with Panic Attacks
Panic attacks are almost impossible to stop, but there are some things you can do to help minimize and manage the situation.
1 – Use calming techniques. Panic attacks can cause rapid breathing and chest tightness, so try to breathe slowly and deeply, concentrating on each breath. Imagine a relaxing scene or activity — go to your proverbial “happy place”. Aromatherapy has calming benefits, so inhaling the scents of lavender, bergamot orange, chamomile, or lemon may be helpful. Sights and sounds can often intensify a panic attack. Try to find a more peaceful spot, leaving a busy room or at least out of the traffic flow. Whatever happens, remind yourself the attack will be over soon and will not cause physical harm.
2 – Use grounding techniques. Mindfulness is an extremely useful tool with a wide range of techniques that help keep you in the real world. One of the most popular is a simple exercise called 5-4-3-2-1.
To do 5-4-3-2-1, start by sitting in a comfortable position if possible and taking a few deep breaths. Then, consciously do the following:
Note five things that you can see. Note four things that you can touch. Note three things that you can hear. Note two things that you can smell. Note one thing that you can taste.
This can be done almost anywhere without drawing attention. Force yourself to be aware of the world around you. This serves as a distraction from the panic attack and may reduce the symptoms or duration.
3 – Try muscle relaxation techniques. Muscle tension is another symptom of panic attacks. Muscle relaxation techniques allow your brain to focus on a specific exercise and relieve unconscious tension. Progressive muscle relaxation is the favored method: starting at the bottom of your body, tense up the muscles of your feet and hold for a 5 count, then say “Relax” and release the tension. Wait a few seconds, then tighten your calf muscles and release, and repeat for each muscle group in your body moving up to the neck and head.
Practice both grounding and relaxation techniques when you are calm so that you get used to the process and can easily perform them during the onset of a panic attack.
4 – Get busy. Do some light exercising – physical or mental. Walking can physically remove you from a stressful environment, and the rhythm of walking may help regulate breathing. Exercise releases the “feel good” endorphins that relax the body and improve mood. Regular exercise can help reduce anxiety over time, which may cut the number or intensity of panic attacks. Getting your brain busy can also serve as a distraction from a panic attack. Play solitaire, sing, read a book, do a sudoku or crossword puzzles — whatever works for you!
5 – Talk to someone. Building a solid support network is helpful when dealing with the aftermath of a panic attack, but talking to someone during the attack is helpful. During a panic attack, your first instinct is often to get far away from other people. However, forcing yourself to speak to a friend or family member can give you something to focus on to help you calm down. They may be able to locate a quiet spot and get you some space or help you through some of the basic grounding exercises. Remember that you don’t have to face panic attacks alone.
After a panic attack is over, give yourself a break. Take a shower, go for a walk, stretch a little — anything that you find relaxing to bring your body and mind back to equilibrium. When your mind is clear, think back and try to identify what triggered the panic attack. Understanding what caused the attack will help you avoid them in the future.
Rising Phoenix Wellness Services is a licensed mental health and substance use disorder Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) in Scottsdale, Arizona. We created our addiction and mental health treatment program to offer a safe, welcoming, and nurturing environment where clients are embraced, not judged, throughout their recovery process.
We offer programming that is based on Integrity, Innovation, Confident Humility, and Mindful Leadership. Our Mission is to help people recognize the unique value of their life and improve their overall health and wellness.