A woman in a subway station holding her head in her hands

How to Survive a Panic Attack

Approximately 1 in 5 people will experience a panic attack in their life. Having clicked on this article, you may be one of billions of people that have experienced panic attacks or you have a loved one that has experienced a panic attack. Panic attacks can be frightening to many of us who experience them, sometimes presenting similar to heart attacks or other health conditions. It can feel impossible to soothe oneself or make it through the moment.While some of us may only experience panic attacks once or twice in our lives, some experience them regularly. About 1 in 10 Americans will have at least one panic attack this year. Although panic attacks can be frightening and symptoms of larger mental health conditions, that’s not to say there is no way to cope with them.

To start off, what is a panic attack? It can be hard to pinpoint one answer, as many people experience panic differently than others. Generally speaking, panic attacks are intense fear responses that cause a combination of emotional and physical responses. Common symptoms of panic attacks can include racing heart, difficulty breathing, faintness, feelings of time moving slowly, shaking, fear of dying, lost sense of control, sweating/chills, and an intense sensation that something bad is about to occur. While panic attacks can feel as if they go on for hours, they often last less than 10 minutes.

Despite the fear and discomfort of panic, it’s important to remember why we experience panic attacks. Historically, this high stress response was a way to protect us from dangerous situations by kicking our fight, flight, or freeze instincts into gear. Knowing that this is a natural response in our body, it’s important not to try to suppress a panic attack as it comes up, but let it run its course. Suppressing or pushing down panic can actually lead to worse panic.

Here are things you can do to both cope with panic attacks as well as decrease your overall risk:

Weathering the storm

Be an Objective Observer: Although it may seem counterintuitive at first, it is important to stay in the moment and not try to distract yourself. Distractions will only serve to try and suppress your reactions, which can increase panic as mentioned before. Stick with your experience and be mindful of what is happening, but take on a third-person perspective. Taking on an “objective” standpoint similar to a scientist doing research or a play-by-play sports announcer keeps us engaged with our experiences while allowing space between us and our panic.

Show Yourself Kindness: When we’re upset, many of us turn our anxiety, sadness, and anger inward. Before, during, and after a panic attack, it’s important to show ourselves kindness, understanding, and forgiveness. A good starting point is to remind ourselves that there is no such thing as a “good” or “bad” emotion - all of our emotions communicate needs, even if we do not understand the need yet.

Be Mindful of Your Body and Breath: As you take on the aforementioned role of observer, be sure to focus in on your physical reactions. Where in your body do you feel the panic most? Place your hand wherever that panic resides: your heart, your stomach, your neck. Try your best to slow down and deepen your breath. This might feel awkward at first or uncomfortable, but staying with it can be a way to ease your body as the feelings pass.

Let Go of Resistance and Allow it to Pass: It’s counterproductive to fight your own body. As mentioned before, resisting panic will only intensify the anxiety and prolong the inevitable. When a panic attack starts, the only way out is through. Remind yourself that: 1). No matter how your body feels during panic, you will be okay and 2). No matter how intense the emotions seem, they will eventually pass.

Preventing the panic

There is no sure fire way to stop panic attacks from happening in a person, but there are many strategies that you can take to help decrease the anxiety which may trigger the reactions. The first action steps you could take involve checking in with your physical health. Anxiety can be both increased and reduced by the choices we make with our bodies. Eating nutritious food regularly, sleeping for 7-9 hours a night, and getting exercise each week all contribute to maintaining emotional health as well as physical health. Caffeine and nicotine are common culprits of increased anxiety, but they are not the only substances to be mindful of - even drugs that seem to “calm” the system in some like alcohol and marijuana can still interfere with emotional regulation, impact the restfulness of our sleep, and conflict with medications.

Anxiety can also be reduced through regularly tending to our minds. A helpful acronym to start with is “ABC”.

  • Accumulate
  • Positive
  • Experiences

By finding ways to fit into our schedule things we enjoy and prioritize time spent with those who help us feel good; as simple as this sounds, making designated time for what we love helps us to bounce back against emotional setbacks more easily.

Build mastery

Through practicing skills and tasks we enjoy and want to get better at, such as playing an instrument, creating art, learning a new language, or increasing understanding of a specific topic. Developing ourselves in different areas increases our sense of confidence and resilience.

Cope ahead of time

This can be helpful since in many situations where we feel stressed, we know that this event will be happening - whether that’s an upcoming work event, an interview, recurring conflict in a friend group, etc. Mentally rehearsing difficult conversations as well as identifying ways that you will be able to cope with stress when it comes up can both alleviate anxiety when that moment arrives.

Panic attacks vs. panic disorder

While most people who experience panic attacks may only experience them occasionally or infrequently, there are about 2-3% of those folks who go on to develop Panic Disorder. Panic Disorder is a mental health condition characterized by frequent panic attacks, many times appearing out of the blue. Panic Disorder, as well as related anxiety disorders that may also contribute to recurring panic, can be treated in many different ways, from talk therapies to medications. If you’re noticing patterns of panic attacks or that your panic attacks are impacting your day-to-day life, the best thing you can do is to discuss with a mental health professional. Although there is no “cure” for a panic attack, there is much that can be done to treat panic disorder and other related conditions!