TW: Panic attacks, suicidal ideation
Panic attacks are scary and sometimes come without warning. When panic attacks occur, some people feel as if they are losing control, having a heart attack, or even dying. That’s why it’s helpful to know the signs of a panic attack as well as the strategies that can be used to lessen the severity of them.
A panic attack is typically defined as a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers a severe physical reaction when there is no present danger or apparent cause, according to the Mayo Clinic. They usually come on suddenly and can happen anywhere, but over time they can be triggered by certain situations. Common symptoms include fear or loss of control, impending doom, hyperventilation, palpitations, breathlessness, chest pain, sweating, shaking, chills, nausea, cramps, dizziness, numbness, and suicidal ideation. While people experience panic attacks differently, symptoms usually peak within minutes.
Although panic attacks themselves aren’t life-threatening, they are scary and can affect your quality of life. If you find yourself having recurrent, unexpected panic attacks and fear having attacks in the future, you may have a condition called panic disorder, according to the Mayo Clinic. It is good to seek treatment for panic attacks to help prevent relapses or worsening symptoms. There are also a variety of coping strategies to ease the symptoms of an attack.
An effective way to get through a panic attack is to recognize that you’re having one. If you have never experienced a panic attack, the sensation can feel overwhelming and lead to greater anxiety. One of the best tips to help you stay present is to remind yourself that the panic attack is temporary and will pass.
As someone who has experienced more than a dozen panic attacks in my life, I find comfort in knowing that the symptoms are temporary. My panic attacks often begin with hyperventilating, crying, and chills. At the peak of the attack, I feel like I might die and have increased suicidal ideation. Beyond recognizing that I’m having a panic attack, I try to regulate my breathing with a strategy that my therapist taught me. I start with a high random number such as 473 and then begin counting backwards which helps me focus on the numbers and regulates my breathing.
Another grounding strategy to get through a panic attack is called the 5-4-3-2-1 method. It involves focusing on your five senses to anchor you to your surroundings. In this method, you identify five things you see around you, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste, according to Pych Central. You can also try pressing your feet firmly into the ground or sucking on a sour candy to stay grounded.
While counting and grounding methods can be effective for many people, they are not always easy to implement during a panic attack. If you find yourself unable to try one of the above strategies during an attack, it can be helpful to reach out to someone in a time of distress. This could be a friend, a loved one, The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, or a mental health professional.
Once you reach out to someone, you can let the person know that you’re having a panic attack. Typically when I have panic attacks and other people are around, I ask them to stay with me until it passes. I also let people close to me know that I have panic attacks so they are not worried or confused if I have an attack. By doing that, I feel secure and remember that the moment will pass.
If you don’t feel comfortable reaching out to someone while having a panic attack, try writing down your feelings and symptoms. It can also be helpful to monitor your symptoms and mood in the hours and days following a panic attack. According to the Mayo Clinic, many people feel fatigued and worn out after a panic attack subsides. I personally feel exhausted and depressed for up to a week after a panic attack. Now that I know my symptoms after a panic attack, I’m able to manage my emotions better and combat any lingering negative thoughts.
If you try all of the above techniques and have spoken with a mental health professional and still experience panic attacks, medication is a possible option. Your doctor or a psychiatrist may prescribe medication such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) to treat panic attacks, according to the NIMH. A combination of medication, therapy, and mindfulness techniques can be effective in treating panic attacks. Above all else, be compassionate with yourself and remember the strength you have to work through a panic attack.
“Anxiety Disorders.” National Institute of Mental Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders#part_145338. Accessed 4 Jan. 2024.
Bettino, Kate. “How to Get through a Panic Attack.” Psych Central, Psych Central, 21 May 2021, psychcentral.com/anxiety/how-to-halt-and-minimize-panic-attacks#recap.
“Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 4 May 2018, mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/panic-attacks/symptoms-causes/syc-20376021.