9 Things to Do If You're Having a Panic Attack
These tips and techniques can help you cope with the anxiety.
‘Tis the season to celebrate, unless you’re doubled up in fear that you’ll have a panic attack. You don’t want to miss the annual holiday party–but what if you end up crouched in the corner of the room?
Everyone’s panic attacks are different, but they’re usually treatable, says psychologist Greta Hirsch, PhD, clinical director of the Ross Center for Anxiety & Related Disorders in Washington, D.C. One person could have terrible heart fluttering, she explains, while another might have facial flushing and shortness of breath. Someone else may feel like, “Oh, everyone’s seeing me have a meltdown!”
In therapy to treat panic attacks, you’ll learn coping strategies to ride out your uncomfortable feelings. If panic strikes you this holiday season, these tips and techniques may help you weather the storm.
Nix negative thoughts
You’ve arrived at a party and suddenly your heart is beating out of your chest and you’re short of breath. All you can think is, “What if I need to go to the emergency room?”
Hirsch works with panic attack sufferers to ease the “fear factor” of physical symptoms. To do so, she helps them alter their internal dialogue. What you’re experiencing is just an adrenaline rush–your body’s fight-or-flight response–not an emergent threat to your health, she says. She councils people to recognize that they might have the same feelings of breathlessness or heart pounding during a tough workout at the gym. There, she explains, “you’re not sending yourself a message of danger.”
Accentuate the positive
In therapy, people with panic attacks learn to counter their negative self-talk with positive coping statements. Keeping a journal can be an important tool for helping people identify when they’re feeling anxious and recording positive statements that can be mentally repeated during a panic attack.
For example, Hirsch says, you might think to yourself, “This doesn’t feel comfortable, but I can accept it. I can ride through this. I don’t need it to get to me.”
Dive into your symptoms
When you’re reeling and worried you’ll lose control, your instinct may be to squash your panic attack, pronto. Instead, give your body permission to react to your symptoms without needing to shut down or run away, Hirsch suggests.
Consider this metaphor: “You’re in the ocean and there’s a huge wave coming at you, and that represents your panic attack. What happens if you try to put your hand out to stop that wave? It’s going to knock you over,” she says. Whereas, “if you dive into it, it just brings you a little bit closer to shore.”
Most panic attacks reach their peak in just 10 minutes or less, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, and then they usually begin to subside.
Strike up a conversation
Even if you feel like you can’t breathe, help may be as simple as getting chatty with another guest. If you’re speaking with someone, that means you’re breathing, Hirsch points out.
Engaging in conversation also forces your mind to be present in the moment, she adds. That’s much better than ruminating about “Will I pass out?”
If you don’t feel ready to approach someone, step out of the party and call someone you trust. “It gets you in the moment, it gets you breathing, it gets you, maybe, out of the triggering environment for a few minutes,” Hirsch reasons.
If you feel you can’t bear to engage in small talk with other revelers, at least give your panicked mind an opportunity to change the subject.
Here’s a little trick: Count backwards from 100 by threes, Hirsch suggests. It requires some focus and helps shift your internal conversation away from the uncomfortable “what if” questions, like “What if embarrass myself?” she says.
When you’re having a panic attack, it can feel like you have a lump in your throat or you can’t catch your breath. Some people get dry mouth or a metallic taste when they’re anxious.
Hirsch suspects that funky taste may be due to the brain chemicals your body is releasing in its adrenaline rush. A cool sip of water may help to alleviate your symptoms, she says.
Control your breathing
When you’re in a panic, you tend to take rapid, shallow breaths, and that can make you lightheaded.
Breathing is the one symptom you do want to control during a panic attack, Hirsch says, because slow, abdominal breathing can offset those feelings of dizziness.
Try inhaling to the count of five and exhaling to the count of 10. Practice ahead of time by lying down and placing a magazine on your stomach. If you’re breathing from your belly rather than from your chest, you’ll see the magazine rise and fall.
Stay connected to your environment
You may feel lightheaded, but it doesn’t mean you’re going to pass out, Hirsch says. The best way to prove that to yourself–and thwart panicked thoughts of crashing to the ground–is to perform this little visual experiment: Focus on a face or a picture in the room. “Ask yourself, ‘Am I seeing this the way a dizzy person would see it?’” Hirsch says. The answer, most likely, will be no.
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Take a whiff
Sense of smell is said to be the fastest route to the brain. That’s why sniffing a calming scent may be just the ticket when you’re mired in feelings of dread.
Keep an oil or perfume with your favorite scent–patchouli, lilac, whatever you prefer–in your handbag. If panic sets in, place a dab of it on your wrist and inhale, says Hirsch. “It grounds you.”