Panic attacks are sudden periods of intense fear that may include palpitations, sweating, shaking, shortness of breath, numbness, or a feeling of impending doom. The maximum degree of symptoms occurs within minutes. They typically last for about 30 minutes, but the duration can vary from seconds to hours. If you’re having a panic attack, you may feel fear of losing control or chest pain. Panic attacks themselves are not physically dangerous, but they can be disruptive and scary!
More than 3 million Americans will experience panic disorder in their lifetime, and in most cases, onset is in the adolescent or teenage years. Genetics, brain chemistry, and environment (one’s upbringing or current stress levels) can all play a role in panic attacks. You may or may not be genetically predisposed to having panic attacks, but if they start happening to you, it’s important to make sure your doctor knows as soon as possible. Recurrent panic attacks may point to panic disorder, and it’s important that you get diagnosed as soon as possible if that’s the case for you.
There are two types of panic attacks: unexpected and expected. Unexpected panic attacks, as their name suggests, often seem to come out of the blue. Expected panic attacks, also known as “cued panic attacks” are situationally bound, meaning there may be specific events that set them off. A person may experience a panic attack if they anticipate they will be exposed or are exposed to a situation that triggers a panic attack.
We can’t stress enough how critical it is that you seek professional medical help if you begin experiencing panic attacks. A qualified mental health professional or healthcare worker will be your best and most important resource for help, but we have found some advice that may help you deal with a panic attack in the moment if it happens to you.
Recognizing that you’re having a panic attack: By acknowledging to yourself that you’re having a panic attack, you can remind yourself that it is temporary and will pass. This knowledge alone can help you calm down.
Deep breathing: If you’re able to control your breathing, you’re less likely to experience the hyperventilating that can make other symptoms — and the panic attack itself — worse.
Focus on taking deep breaths in and out through your mouth, feeling the air slowly fill your chest and belly and then slowly leave them again. Inhale for the count of 4, hold breath for the count of 4, then exhale for the count of 8. The exhale needs to be longer than the inhale to trigger the parasympathetic system. There are countless free gifs and YouTube videos that you can pair your breathing with to help you regain control. It may help to bookmark a few of your favorite ones in your personal device so that you can easily access them if the need arises.
Closing your eyes: Some people are triggered by external stimuli. If you’re in a hectic situation or environment, this can feed into the panic attack. Closing your eyes will help reduce the stimuli. If you have them, you may want to pop earplugs in, or consider carrying them with you to see if they help.
Focus object: Some may find that focusing all of their attention on a single object during a panic attack to be helpful. Choose one object in clear sight. Mentally note everything you can about it. For example, you may choose a tree, and notice how the leaves shake in the breeze, the color and shake of the branches, the differences in length and size of the twigs. Note the color, shapes, size, and patterns of the object. Focus all of your energy on your chosen object, and see if your panic symptoms start to subside.
Aromatherapy: Lavender can especially help soothe the mind, so if you have been experiencing panic attacks, you may choose to keep a small bottle of it with you to smell if you feel a panic attack coming on. It can help your body relax. If you don’t enjoy the smell of lavender, you might consider chamomile, or finding another scent that helps you calm down.
Repeating a mantra: “This too shall pass,” or “I am calming down” may be helpful to repeat on loop in your mind for as long as you can. It also gives your brain something else to focus on. Find a phrase that is meaningful to you.
Panic attacks can feel frightening, but they are common and they are manageable. Be sure to seek the help of a qualified medical professional, and know that you are not alone!