5 Things to do when you get a panic attack

If you can picture this, chances are you have been there before – even if you didn’t have the words to describe the experience:

A sudden onset of chills grips the entire body, or a feeling of heat rising rapidly through the body and sweat breaking all over it. The heart races alarmingly. There is light-headedness, and a thinly permeable bubble seems to surround your head so that air is coming in short spurts that are never enough for a proper breath. There is a sudden terror that the body is forgetting how to breathe and death is imminent.

This isn’t the onset of death however much our terrified response to it tells us it could be. What it is a panic or anxiety attack.

A panic attack is a brief period of intense physical response to fear even when there is no actual danger or clear reason.  These responses can include a racing heartbeat, shortness of breath, dizziness, trembling and muscle tension. Panic attacks can be terrifying because when they occur the sufferer might think they are losing control, having a heart attack or dying.

A panic attack can last from a few minutes to half an hour. However, the physical and emotional effects of the attack may last for a few hours.

The first time I witnessed one I was convinced my mother had picked up Asthma somehow. I say, “picked up” because I hadn’t known her to be asthmatic, but my best friend was. So I interpreted her desperate clawing for breath on all fours, sweaty and trembling body and occasional muttering in-between shallow breaths of, “I can’t breathe!” to be an asthma attack.

Years later I would employ her all-fours stance as I gasped for breath myself, certain I was dying because I had never up until that point experienced a panic attack that severe, and nothing I knew or read could prepare me for how my body seemed to betray me in that instant.

Panic attacks are common. Up to 35% of the population experience a panic attack at some time in their lives. For most of this population, a panic attack may occur only occasionally during periods of stress or illness. When a person experiences recurring panic attacks, they are said to have a panic disorder,which is a type of anxiety disorder. Determining this requires diagnosis, and you should seek one from a professional before claiming to be suffering from panic disorder. 

Because even where your panic attack is pointing to a larger problem of anxiety disorder, you still need to cope before finding your way to a professional, we compiled some tested and trusted short term coping mechanisms.

The first time you have a panic attack you may not even realise what you’re dealing with, but you can’t miss the sequence of events that led to the onset of your symptoms. When a panic attack starts think of it as turbulence on a flight, in that sense you have no choice but to ride the symptoms:1. Don’t struggle with it, sit with it: Avoid trying to talk your way out of it, “I can’t breathe! I need to relax!”

Focus instead on actually breathing. A breathing exercise helps here. Slow, deliberate breaths. 2. Don’t move: You will think if you just move from the situation all will be well. It very likely won’t and you are exerting yourself. Stay where you are. Stay in the moment too. Remind yourself that your symptoms are uncomfortable but not life-threatening, and they will pass.3. Focus on something outside your body: You can try to count from 50 backwards, think something positive, or maybe recall a part of a favourite song lyric and hold on to it.4. Remember that it will soon pass and sit tight.

Talking about our experiences can bring clarity to things we missed before, so speak to people you are comfortable talking to about your experience. Map out your triggers. And if your panic attacks recur and threaten to be debilitating, seek professional help. Medication exists for these things.

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