Panic attacks

What is a panic attack?

You’re on the tube, plane or just hanging out and suddenly your heart is racing, you can’t breathe properly and your hands are tingling. Sound familiar?

The unfortunate news is that this rings a bell for many people. The good news however, is that panic attacks always pass – even if it feels like they never will in the moment.

The causes of panic attacks vary, but the symptoms are always caused by your body’s “fight or flight” response being activated. Your heart pumps more blood to your vital organs which causes a racing heart beat and panting.

Panic attacks may feel something like this:

Emotionally

 

In your mind

  • You worry that you are having a heart attack or dying
  • You worry that you are going crazy
  • You’re afraid of losing control
  • You’re afraid of humiliating yourself in public
  • You feel weak and inferior

Physically

 

In your body

  • Your heart is beating really fast and you can’t breathe
  • You’re shaking and nauseous
  • You feel like you’re going to choke
  • You’re sweating
  • You have numbness or tingling in your limbs
  • You feel unsteady

What can you do about it?

Understand what a panic attack is

Do this during a panic attack

  • During a panic attack, we often feel like we are in real danger and that it is being caused by a real physical ailment
  • The reality is that panic attacks are just a physical response to anxiety or stress; our “fight or flight” system is activated which means our heart pumps more blood to our vital organs and causes the symptoms that we feel
  • Telling yourself this helps to realise that you are not in real danger, and that you can reverse your body’s response

Know that it will pass

Do this during a panic attack

  • Panic attacks are so scary because we feel like they will last for ever (unless we die before)
  • However, panic attacks always pass; it’s important to know this and remind yourself of it while it’s happening – think of a wave that comes and goes
  • Just accept it and know that it’s a physical response which will disappear in 5 – 20 minutes
  • In the meantime, tell yourself that you will get through it in the same way that you have done in the past – positive self-talk really helps!

Breathe

Do this during a panic attack

  • Sit comfortably with your feet firmly planted on the floor
  • Inhale for 3 seconds, hold your breath for 6 seconds, exhale for 6 seconds
  • Repeat as many times as necessary

Ground yourself

Do this during a panic attack

  • Sit comfortably with your feet firmly planted on the floor
  • Push your feet against the floor as hard as possible and notice the physical feeling of this
  • Touch something – a pet, a set of keys, a phone, whatever! – and notice the feeling of the object against your fingertips

Fire up your imagination

Do this during a panic attack

  • Think of a place or a memory that makes you happy and relaxed
  • Make sure that you visualise it and feel the emotions and physical feelings that the memory or place brings up. Immerse yourself and really focus on it.
  • It’s helpful to have a “happy place” that you can easily go to when you are having a panic attack – try to think of one now, so that if you need it you have one ready!

Talk to a stranger

Do this during a panic attack

  • This sounds weird and awkward, but it really works!
  • Starting a conversation with the person sitting next to you (even if they are a stranger) immediately takes your focus outwards and helps to take you out of the negative spiral of your thought process

Tell people what to do

When you are feeling fine

  • Many of us have been in the same situation: you are having a panic attack and your well-meaning partner/sibling/friend/partner keeps telling you to “relax” or “just breathe”
  • Take some time when you are not having a panic attack to explain to the people close to you how they can help you: Can they count while they breathe? Can they take you through a grounding exercise? Can they help you visualise a “happy place”?
  • Knowing that someone close to you knows what to do really helps!

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