Panic attacks are a fear response and experienced when there is a sudden and rapid increase in anxiety. They are often unpleasant for the sufferer but are not life-threatening.
Actions that can help
Panic attacks are distressing and can be perceived as uncontrollable. However, there are some coping strategies that may be of benefit:
- Slow breathing: Panic attacks can affect your breathing, commonly making it more shallow and rapid. This can have a knock-on effect on your heart rate and can exacerbate fears that something bad is about to happen. Through the deliberate process of slow breathing, you can regulate your breath back to a state of normalcy. One way of doing this is to deliberately breathe in through your nose as you count to three and breathe out through your mouth for the same length of time.
- Use your senses: Some people find it helpful to touch an object, for instance something soft or comforting, as a way of managing the symptoms of a panic attack, or to smell something pungent to help ground them.
- Approach: Panic attacks can act as cues that certain situations, places, or people are to be avoided as we believe approaching them would put us in danger. People often use avoidance as a strategy to prevent a panic attack. However, although this provides short term relief, avoidance can reinforce the belief that situations, places or people are in fact dangerous, leading to further avoidance. By approaching something that could act as a potential trigger, even in a small way, you can start testing this notion. For example, you may have to ride the lift up to the top floor for a meeting, despite a fear of confined spaces. You can then set yourself a goal to ride the lift one floor to begin with, which may still be anxiety-provoking, but not as much as riding all the way to the top. Try to approach easier situations first before moving onto more challenging ones.
- Talk to someone: Many people worry that others will not understand about panic attacks if they open up, or that they will be judged. However, this is frequently not the case and many find it helpful to tell a trusted friend or family member about their experience of anxiety. This opens up the possibility to agree how they would like to be helped in difficult situations.
- Learn coping statements: You can come up with self-coping phrases to say to yourself when you feel the onset of a panic attack. Such as, “I am safe” or “This is temporary, anxiety always passes” as a way of reminding yourself you have been through this before and you are not, in fact, in danger.