There are few things as terrifying in day to day life as panic attacks. Depending on how you experience the symptoms, they can take a variety of forms, but most sufferers report their heart pounding, their palms sweating, and feeling like they can’t catch their breath.
Of course, to deal with anxiety and panic attacks effectively, it’s important to speak to a clinical psychologist who can help you identify and address the underlying issues causing the attacks.
But for the moment let’s just focus on how to get through the physical symptoms when a panic attack occurs.
Accept What’s Happening
A panic attack is essentially your body reacting to danger – bringing on a burst of adrenaline and getting the body ready for the ‘fight or flight’ response. However, usually when a panic attack occurs the danger is only perceived or in your mind, and while you may even acknowledge and understand you are not in any immediate danger, your mind and body haven’t got the message and their natural reactions have taken over.
Once a panic attack has come over you, you can do little to prevent it, you just need to accept that it’s happening, understand it’s just a natural bodily reaction and ride it out. Trying to fight it aggressively is only going to make things harder. Know that soon the symptoms will pass and you’ll be able to catch your breath.
Instead, try to accept what’s happening. You might say to yourself, “I’m afraid, and I’m beginning to panic, but I’m not in danger,” for example.
Change Your Breathing
Many of our clinical psychologists teach patients to take control of their breathing in order to take control of the panic. The rush of adrenaline flooding your body encourages you to hyper-oxygenate your blood by breathing fast and high in the chest. If you were about to run away from physical danger, this would be great! When you’re trying to drive to work and get triggered, it’s a lot less helpful.
When you’re having a panic attack, you’ll find you’re breathing high in your chest. Change your breathing by drawing air all the way through your torso down into your belly, like you would during a yoga practice. Simply because this takes longer as a breathing pattern, it will slow your breathing and help the panic to abate.
Another common panic attack symptom is feeling disconnected from your body, or like you’re floating. Direct sensory input can help combat that feeling. Hold something that has a distinct texture, like a sweater or a spiky ball. If you’re with someone you trust, you could grab their hands and ask them to squeeze.
How to help someone else going through a panic attack
For friends and family, seeing someone go through a panic attack, it can feel frightening and you can feel helpless – you want to help, but don’t know how. Follow these tips to give some reassurance to your friend and help them through:
- If you’re watching someone who is beginning to panic, your instinct might be to say “You’re okay” but we wouldn’t recommend this. The person who is panicking has probably never felt less okay in their life. Try “You’re safe,” and “I’m right here, I’m not going away.”
- Help them to get their breathing under control with practical and level-headed directions. Ask them if they can take a few deep breaths with you. Model the deep breaths by taking long, slow inhales through the nose down into the tummy and exhalations through the mouth.
- Don’t touch them without permission, unless they are physically unsafe or you need to move them from the situation. You can make things much worse by crowding them. To help keep them grounded you can ask “May I hold your hand,” but if they say no, respect that.
Get some help
Panic attacks are terrifying and uncomfortable, but a single panic attack can’t hurt you. If you’re experiencing panic attacks, it’s important to know that you can feel better. Combinations of medications and talk therapy are often very successful in treating panic attacks, whether they’re related to a specific event or an underlying condition. While these tips can certainly help you get through a specific event, know that you deserve to feel better, and we can help with that.
To book an appointment with one of our clinical psychologists who can help you with anxiety and panic attacks just get in touch via phone or our contact form. We’re open weekdays, evenings and Saturdays by appointment only.