If you have ever experienced a panic attack, then you know just how miserable and immobilizing they can be. Even when you know that the feeling is completely psychological and won't last forever, in the midst of the attack, it's easy to feel like you're never going to be OK again, or that something physically horrible is about to happen to you. Unfortunately, since most panic attacks seem to come out of nowhere and then escalate super fast, sufferers end up feeling not only terrified, but also helpless. The moment you realize you're having a panic attack, you may feel like it's already too late to do anything about it, but it isn't. There are things you can do as soon as you start having a panic attack that will help you minimize or even halt the whole horrible episode.
Approximately six million Americans suffer from panic disorders, and 6.8 million suffer from General Anxiety Disorder. Both of these conditions often come with panic attacks, and women are twice as likely to be affected by them as men. So whether you suffer from frequent panic attacks, or they have been rare, isolated incidents, or you're one of the lucky ones who have never had an attack at all, it's important to know what to do when you're having one. You may not be able to control when your next panic attack happens, but there are ways to control how bad it gets and how long it lasts. Here are five things you should do ASAP if you're having a panic attack.
1. Take Deep Breaths
You knew this one was coming. In the throes of a panic attack, when everything from your mind to your heart is racing, one of the hardest things to do is slow down. But fast, shallow breathing will only escalate your panic, and it could even cause you to start hyperventilating.
When you start to feel a panic attack coming on, begin focusing on your breathing immediately. Start taking slow, deep breaths, and don't stop taking them until your episode has passed. If panic attacks are a regular part of your life (or even if they're not), you should start learning deep breathing techniques in your downtime. Daily yoga is one relaxing, healthy way to start making deep breathing a part of your daily routine. Consider dedicating just 10 minutes a day to yoga or meditation, so that the next time you have a panic attack, your body will already know how to use deep breathing to ease your mind.
2. Find Something To Hold
A common symptom of panic attacks is to feel disoriented. Things stop feeling real, which only causes your panic to increase. When this starts happening to you, you need to ground yourself. If you're standing when the attack starts, find something tangible to grab onto, like a door frame or the back of your couch. If you're sitting when you start to panic, find something you can hold (like your keys, pillow, or really, any small object within your reach) and keep running your fingers over it. It's important to do whatever you can to remind yourself that this moment is real, even if it doesn't feel real to you.
3. Grab Some Ice Cubes
As strange as it sounds, you can actually use ice cubes to deescalate panic attack symptoms. Holding an ice cube will force your mind and body to focus on your discomfort instead of your panic. This should effectively distract you from your symptoms and work to minimize your attack until it's halted altogether. Try switching the cubes from hand to hand if it doesn't take you very long to adjust to the cold.
4. Get Moving
It may sound ridiculous to suggest that you try working out during a panic attack, but moving can help ease anxiety and panic attack symptoms. I'm not saying that you should choose your next panic attack as a time to bust out a squat circuit, but try going for a short walk, or even just taking a shower. Do something physical that will stimulate your mind and body and keep you busy.
It's also worth noting that studies have shown that people who exercise regularly exhibit a 20 percent decrease in their anxiety symptoms compared to those who don't exercise at all. So even if you hate exercising, think about how much it can help you with not only your physical health, but your mental health as well.
5. Affirm Yourself
As you are probably all too aware, panic attacks will flood your mind with negative thoughts like, "I'm going crazy," "I'm dying," or "Everyone hates me." You may not be able to keep these thoughts from entering your mind, but you can combat them with positive ones. Go get a a journal and a pen, and write down as many positive thoughts about yourself as you can think of. You could start with this one: "I am loved."
In the midst of a panic attack it's hard to remember that your negative thoughts are just that — thoughts. They are not your reality, and they are 100 percent a symptom of your panic, rather than an honest statement about you, your health, or how others feel about you. The next time you feel a panic attack coming on, you need to literally speak up for yourself. Grab your list of positive thoughts and read them out loud, one after another.
The Bottom Line
Panic attacks are terrifying and miserable, but they are actually relatively common. So don't ever think you need to feel ashamed or embarrassed about having them. These methods can certainly ease and even halt the symptoms of your panic attacks, but if your attacks become more frequent, don't be afraid to talk to your primary care physician and/or a mental health professional about it. Remember that you are strong, and don't let panic attacks steal your peace.