Last week, I experienced a panic attack for the first time. The scariest part, though, was that I was hopelessly lost for what to do. If you ever find yourself in a similar situation, here are some tips for dealing with a panic attack in the moment, preparing for them in the future, and helping others in their time of need.
Illustration by Sam Woolley.
When it started, I was mostly confused. My heart rate skyrocketed and my normal breathing shortened to quick, shallow gasps. There was no pain, so I didn’t think I was having a heart attack, but I knew something was wrong. I fell into absolute panic and, honest to God, had a brief moment where I didn’t recognise who or where I was. And despite the fact that I was alone in my home office, I felt an overwhelming desire to disappear; hoping, like a child, that if I covered my eyes everything would go away.
I had never had a panic attack before, nor have I ever spoken with a therapist about such things, so I had no idea what to do. Fortunately, my Lifehacker instincts kicked in. I pulled myself off the floor where I had huddled into a ball and reached for my keyboard. I did a quick Google search and, while I found a few tips that helped me calm down, I also found a lot of information from random, undocumented sources. So, to help others in the same position, I decided to get some solid tips from clinical psychologist Jeffrey DeGroat, Ph.D.
This guide can’t and shouldn’t replace seeking real help when you need it. That being said, knowledge is power, and this information can give you the power to properly handle the panic attacks that you or someone else may experience.
What to Do Right Now If You Are Experiencing a Panic Attack
If you’re having a panic attack right now, or just preparing for one in the future, here are some tips that can help. You can’t just “calm down” on a whim, but you can practice regaining control.
Focus on Your Breath
During a panic attack, your breath gets quick and shallow. In order to calm yourself, you’ll need to slow your breathing to longer, deeper breaths. DeGroat recommends a simple breathing exercise of breathing in for four seconds, and then out for six seconds. Maintain this breathing pattern until your panic attack subsides.
If you have a different breathing technique that you know has worked for you in the past, however, feel free to use that. As long as it promotes relaxation in some way, a breathing exercise is a great place to start. My short, gasping breaths was the scariest part for me, and once I had a handle on that aspect, my panic began to taper off.
Remind Yourself That This Will End
Once you’ve started to slow your breath, tell yourself that your panic attack will end soon. Most panic attacks last only a few minutes, and reminding yourself of this notion can help you see the light at the end of the tunnel. Do not, however, focus on what you’re feeling or why you’re feeling it. DeGroat explains:
Don’t focus upon the anxiety, or the the worries associated fuelling your anxiety. Focusing upon these thoughts, “I’m going to pass out,” “I’m going to have a heart attack,” “I’m going to embarrass myself,” will only make these worries and the panic stronger.
Believe that it will be over quick, and trust that a few relaxation techniques or removing yourself from the trigger will end it. Had I known this tip at the time, I probably would have been able to ride it all out a little quicker.
If you’re starting to regain a little composure, distraction techniques can help you go the distance and make it all the way through your panic attack. For me, the act of searching for answers alone helped a lot. Our minds get distracted easily, and this is one of those times where that actually comes in handy.
If you can’t think of a way to distract yourself, DeGroat suggests you identify an object in the room with you and create a story about how it ended up where it is now. How was it made? Where was it made? Who owned it before you? The more detail you can add to your story the better.
If you’re around other people, don’t hesitate to talk to them and distract yourself with conversation. If you’re worried about how you’re acting around them, inform them of the situation. Panic attacks can sometimes magnify when you feel ashamed for experiencing them, so try to diffuse it by letting them know. They will probably be more than happy to help distract you.
Identify an “Emergency Exit”
If all else fails, remove yourself from the situation completely. When you start to feel a panic attack coming on, identify an “emergency exit” that you can use in case your panic attack hits a point that you can’t control. If you’re prone to panic attacks, get into a habit of identifying these exits whenever you go somewhere you know might trigger them. This should only be your last resort, though, so try the breathing and distraction techniques first. The key is to have an escape plan if you need it, and that knowledge alone can help you get through the situation.
If you’re driving when a panic attack occurs, pulling over to a safe area on the side of the road is your emergency exit. Pull over as soon as you start to experience a panic attack, then try your breathing and distraction techniques. Don’t start driving again until your anxiety has subsided, and if you have someone else with you who can drive, consider asking them to take over.
What to Do If Someone Else Is Experiencing a Panic Attack
If you’re with someone who is experiencing a panic attack, or you know the person you’re with is prone to panic attacks, these tips can help you calm them down. Before you jump to the rescue, however, get your facts straight. You may think someone is having a panic attack, but it’s best not to immediately assume that they are. Asking straight up if they are having a panic attack may exacerbate the problem.
Panic attacks are scary, so whoever is experiencing one may be more than willing to reach out and let you help. That being said, you need to maintain as calm a demeanour as possible so they will feel safe with you. Start by simply asking them if they are feeling well. If what they are describing is significant physical discomfort or pain, it may best to seek medical attention.
Unfortunately, panic attacks and heart attacks share some of the same symptoms and it can be hard to gauge the situation from the outside. Both can involve chest pain, tingling sensations, as well as an almost paralyzing fear. If they are able to talk, however, Dr. David Katerndahl recommends a couple ways to check and make sure their panic attack isn’t a cardiac issue:
- Heart attacks usually have a constant, aching pain accompanied with intense pressure in the chest area; followed by aching pain that spreads throughout the abdomen or down the left arm. Panic attacks usually have sharp, stabbing pain that is more fleeting. If they’re feeling pain, ask them what it feels like.
- Heart attacks are normally brought on by exertion, whereas panic attacks can happen at any time (even at rest). Ask them what they were doing when they started to feel unwell.
If you’re still not sure whether to seek medical attention, it’s always better to be safe than sorry. However, if they merely explain that they are feeling high amounts of stress, anxiety, or if they acknowledge that they are having a panic attack (perhaps they have had one before), help them with the same techniques we mentioned above:
- Get them to breathe: Help them through the breathing exercise, counting out loud in a calming voice.
- Remind them that it will end: Empathise with the person and let them know that it will all be over soon.
- Distract them: Strike up a conversation with them or share some interesting news that will take their mind off of what’s happening.
- Invite them to leave with you: Give the person an emergency exit so they can change their environment and offer to go with them.
- Offer to drive: If the person was driving, offer to take over for them so they can take some time to relax.
Again, don’t talk about what they’re feeling or what the underlying cause of their anxiety might be. Empathise with their situation and focus on getting them through the situation.
Seek Help and Prepare for Next Time
Panic attacks aren’t uncommon, but that doesn’t mean you should blow them off. There can be a number of causes that may be related to your physical and mental health, so find someone who can help you. Even if, like me, you’ve just experienced your first one, DeGroat recommends you reach out to somebody:
If you suspect that you’ve experienced a panic attack for the first time in your life, I would recommend that you meet with your physician to determine if there are any medical conditions that might have caused your symptoms. If you have consistent anxiety, or several panic attacks, pursue professional support. Psychotherapy and medication are both treatment options that have proven effective in the management of anxiety.
In the meantime, it doesn’t hurt to anticipate the next panic attack that might come your way. Plan ahead and memorise these tips so you’re ready next time. Identify people you know you can talk to when your panic strikes again, and always keep an emergency exit ready. In fact, having a plan will likely reduce the likelihood and/or intensity of your anxiety in general.