How To: Help Panic Attacks

I would not wish a bad panic attack on my worst enemy. If you have never experienced one, consider yourself lucky.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America defines a panic attack as such:

“A panic attack is the abrupt onset of intense fear or discomfort that reaches a peak within minutes and includes at least four of the following symptoms:

  • Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
  • Feelings of choking
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Nausea or abdominal distress
  • Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint
  • Chills or heat sensations
  • Paresthesia (numbness or tingling sensations)
  • Derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself)
  • Fear of losing control or “going crazy”
  • Fear of dying”

Unfortunately, for most people, there are no discernable reasons that their panic attacks occur. The triggers are often unidentifiable, and the biological symptoms pop up with no warning. This is the case for me, as I have panic disorder.

For me, a panic attack feels like a sudden wave of anxiety and dread hitting me like a truck. My breathing speeds up and my chest suddenly hurts. My throat goes dry and I feel nauseous. My stomach does flips. It feels like all the oxygen leaves my body. I experience paresthesia in my face and hands, sometimes spreading to my arms. Sometimes the tingling in my hands is so severe, my muscles tense up and I can’t move my fingers. My mind is racing and all I can think is “I’m going to die.” It is a level of hopelessness that I have yet to find a match for.

Luckily, for those of us that struggle with panic attacks, there exist a variety of coping mechanisms that we can use in a pinch. Having had this condition for around seven years, I have filled my toolbox with helpful strategies to deal with anxiety. These are my most useful tips for when an attack hits:

1. Plant your feet on the ground and breathe.

Something that may help a panic attack is getting in touch with your immediate environment. Plant your feet on the ground and remind yourself that your environment is stable. 

Focus on breathing slowly and steadily. Breathe slowly in through your nose, completely filling up your lungs. Hold it for two seconds, then let it go slowly through your mouth. 

2. Use the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 method to ground yourself.

Ever since I found this method, my anxiety has decreased significantly. It is called “grounding.”

In order to ground yourself, look around the room and identify:

  • 5 things you can see
  • 4 things you can touch
  • 3 things you can hear
  • 2 things you can smell
  • 1 thing you can taste

I used this technique in high school when I took the school bus every morning. (Unfortunately, a school bus is the worst place to have a panic attack, as there are virtually no stops and no way to escape.) I coped with it by thinking this to myself every morning:

“Alright, I can see the bus seats, houses, kids, my shoes, and my phone. I can touch my legs, my earbuds, my hand, and my keys. I can hear the radio, my music, and people talking. I can smell my perfume and the fresh air. I can taste my toothpaste.”

Say these things to yourself in your head. It will keep your mind busy and help you become grounded.

3. If you can, tell someone.

Telling someone about your anxiety can be nerve-wracking. However, if you are around a trusted friend or family member (especially one who already knows about your anxiety), tell them that you’re panicking. They might not be able to directly help you, but talking to them might feel better than suffering in silence.

Sometimes having a conversation might help you, too.

4. Distract yourself.

This method doesn’t work for everyone—sometimes, during a panic attack, that is literally all you can focus on. However, I have found that distracting myself helps me cope. 

As a kid, my dad and I would play card games to take my mind off the anxiety. Now, I look to my friends for small talk or play a game on my phone to keep myself busy. 

You might find that other kinds of stimulus ease the discomfort of a panic attack: try bouncing your leg up and down, fidgeting with a small object, twiddling your thumbs, or tracing letters and numbers on your arm. Keep a small rock or toy in your pocket to play with when you feel anxious. If you don’t like physical stimulus, you can play a mental game with yourself; try counting the number of windows in the room or finding as many blue objects as possible. Keeping your mind busy like this can help pull you out of a state of panic.

5. Reason with yourself.

This can be the most difficult thing to do when you’re panicking, but it is a crucial skill to practice. When you are panicking, remind yourself over and over that nothing is wrong. You are not going to die. You are going to be okay. Nothing is going to hurt you.

Tell yourself over and over, “Everything is okay.”

Don’t give up after thirty seconds if this mantra doesn’t work. Keep trying. It’s hard to think rationally when you panic, which is precisely why you must try to.

6. Consider therapy or medication.

This is more of a long-term solution, but I highly recommend looking into therapy and medication if your panic attacks are preventing you from going to school or work. I have gone to multiple therapists and taken Prozac for years, and it has helped me tremendously. This is not to say these solutions will work for everyone. However, if you are truly struggling, I would suggest reaching out.

If anything, remember that you are not broken if you experience panic attacks. There are thousands of us out here just like you. Research, find help, and—above all—don’t lose hope.