How to get through a panic attack
Panic attacks are actually a quite common thing. The National Institute on Mental Health (NIMH) estimated in 2017 that almost 5% of Americans were experiencing a panic disorder at some point in their lives. And you don't even have to have a panic disorder to experience a few panic attacks! That gives you an idea of how many people can sympathize with your situation. But this article is not about numbers or data... It's about finding solutions to your problems. So here we go.
With an app
I know this can seem both obvious and reaaaaaaally hard to do, when you're already out of breath and trying desperately to get more oxygen into your system. I have found it most annoying to have people urge me to breathe in - hold my breath - breathe out all while counting in my head... When I can barely breathe and I feel like I'm suffocating, counting is the last thing I want to do. It's still a good thing to do if you have no smartphone and no one by your side. BUT, if you do have a smartphone on hand, and I reckon most people do... I recommend installing an app called RespiRelax+, here on the App Store and here on the Play Store. It's in French but don't panic: you don't have to read or listen to anything in French.
All you have to do is look at the little bubble in front of you, breathe in when it goes up and breathe out when it goes down. It's not a random rhythm: this is called cardiac coherence, where the rhythme at which you breathe helps put your heart on a precise frequence that helps you calm down. It's pretty amazing.
What you can also do is launch it two to three times a day, to help calm your anxiety and avoid recurring panic attacks. Works like a charm for me, when breathing and counting in my head doesn't at all.
With someone else
If you don't have a smartphone, or for some reason the app doesn't work too well on you, you can try breathing with someone who's by your side. That's what I did before I discovered the app and when I was very weak from not being able to breathe properly... I could barely speak. So I had my now-husband breathe calmly with me. It worked well enough for me to be able to speak, and that was no small feat. Remember that calming your breathing can take a while, but it's a very effective way to get through a panic attack.
The key, the ONE thing you have to remember when it comes to panic attacks, is accepting it. Most of the time, we'll be angry with ourselves for having a panic attack at the worst moment (but really, when is EVER a moment the right one to have a panic attack?!), frustrated because we can't stop it by sheer will, ashamed and guilty that we are making someone else stop what they're doing and try to help us... At best, we might be wondering what's happening to us, whether we're having a heart attack or going crazy.
Well, STOP. Stop right there. If you're familiar with panic attacks, you know you're having one (otherwise, check with your doctor that there's nothing wrong with your physical health), and there's no reason to be mean to yourself -- it has never, and will never, help. On the contrary. So accept that you are having a panic attack, that it is not an ideal time, that there are some things you can do to help but it will take time anyway and LET. YOURSELF. HAVE. THE. F*CKING. PANIC. ATTACK. There's nothing you can do to stop it right away, and denying it or being angry with yourself is only going to make it stronger!
Just be there, accept, observe and tell yourself everything that is happening: "I am having a panic attack. It is okay. It is not dangerous and I am not going to die. It will pass eventually. I have a hard time breathing. I am crying. I am shaking uncontrollably. I feel hot. This is okay. It is because I am having a panic attack. And I don't need a reason for that -- I am having a panic attack and it is okay for me to have one."
Panic attacks can happen because one of your main needs is not being attended to. So check in with yourself by using the HALT method: stop and ask yourself. Am I Hungry ? Am I Angry ? Am I Lonely ? Am I Tired ?
Then, if the answer is yes to one of these questions, tend to your need immediately. It doesn't need to be a chef's meal, a 2-hour nap, yelling at your colleagues or partner or children... Something small, like curling up in a ball on your couch, taking a walk or calling a loved one will suffice. Though you know yourself best, so attend to your need(s) however you can and should, then check in with yourself again to see if the panic attack is gone. Trust me, you will know!
Smell or clutch something comforting
People will usually recommend lavender but I say any comforting smell (like something from your partner, or something that reminds you of your childhood) will work. Inhale deeply... and again, and again, and again, until you feel calmer.
Clutching something comforting will work wonders too, like a big teddy bear (I personally have an adorable Pikachu plush toy). If you're at work, for example, a cushion or your purse will do fine. The idea is to hold it against your chest, and to clutch it tightly, so as to transfer all your fear and discomfort onto it. It's better if it's big, but if you wish to take it with you wherever you go as a means of emergency comfort, a small plush toy (ideally, scented with a calming smell that you like!) will do.
Take a walk
This one might seem just too easy to work but... it does! Something to do with the fresh air, I guess... And maybe the fact that, if you're finally alone, the pressure of getting better quickly won't be as important (though, really, no pressure! You take the time you need). Don't wander too far, though, as it might be difficult for you to come back if the panic attack doesn't decrease.
You might want to take someone with you, but make sure that it's someone who doesn't put pressure on you or who asks how you are every twenty seconds. That would be counterproductive.
Have someone by your side (or on the phone)
You might want to talk to someone. A loved one who, again, is themselves a calm person and able to make you feel better about yourself. If you aren't with them at the moment of your panic attack, call them on the phone and tell them exactly how you're feeling. Don't attempt to justify yourself -- they don't need you to, and you don't need a reason to not be okay. You simply deserve to feel better. Don't feel guilty for taking time to get better, or for bothering them -- if you choose them wisely, that's what they're here for. Helping you get better and telling you it'll be okay in a warm, calming voice.
Practice anchoring -- but beware of mindfulness
Beware of practicing mindfulness, as it could make you focus on your symptoms ("what am I feeling right now? How does my body feel?") and thus make your anxiety flare up. But you can practice something called anchoring, especially if you feel yourself losing connection with the world. Anchoring is getting you back in the world and outside your own anxious mind. Name, aloud if possible, a number of things you are aware of through your five senses : things you see, things you hear, things you can touch, things you can smell, and things you can taste.
I'll add a personal tip: smelling or tasting something strong, like mint, can help tremendously with anchoring yourself in this time and place.
Picture your happy place
Picturing your happy place, previously defined (choose a place where you've actually been, and try to avoid places from your childhood as it can trigger feelings of nostalgia), is a good way of getting out of the here and now that's currently all about... your panic attack. Imagine yourself there, with as much detail as you can. You can practice anchoring there, to help you get as much into it as possible.
Answer your what ifs
A whole part of panic attacks (though not all of them) is about asking "what if". And that can actually exacerbate your fear. One way of answering those fears is... answering those what ifs, with as many positive answers as possible. That way, you'll take the anxiety (not knowing) out of the equation and see that things are not that bad, even if the scary thing actually does happen.
Make a list of positive things
Your mind is in a fearful state and things can appear gloomy. During a panic attack, if it's not so serious as to keep you from being able to write, you can try writing down a list of things that are good and well in your life. It will help your mind focus -- you'll have to think -- and it will help your mind focus on good things, instead of scary what ifs, for example.
Tense then relax
If the panic attack doesn't go away with these mind tricks, you can try to hack it with your body. One way to do that is to tense one muscle at a time, then relax it. Then choose another muscle, and do the same. Over and over again until you feel the panic attack receding.
Learn your triggers
Some panic attacks happen for no reason at all, others are triggered by something very specific. I have anxiety and a lot of guilt: I once had a panic attack last for over an hour because I had not kissed my kitten goodbye that morning before leaving the house. So, yes, sometimes a panic attack can happen because of something apparently really small but that's inscribed in a deeper dynamic. So learn your triggers (that will take time and a few panic attacks, which I do not wish to you, but at least it has a purpose) and also know that panic attacks can happen at moments where, in particular, there is no trigger at all, nothing stressful, nothing actually happening at all... Your mind's tricky like that.
Wait it out
Waiting it out seems like a non-solution, but it is actually one. Because most panic attacks last between 5 and 20 minutes (though it can go on for longer than that if there's a specific trigger that hasn't been removed), waiting can sometimes be the best thing you can do, all while accepting that it is happening and that it will take some time before you feel better.
See a therapist
Of course, if you get more than one panic attack in a week, or several over the course of a few months,do think about seeing a therapist: you might have anxiety, a panic disorder, or a particular phobia. In any case, it's a good idea to go see a professional.
If you have other ideas and tips you'd like to share, just send an email! [email protected]