The unpredictability of panic attacks and the intense feelings that accompany them is perhaps what makes the experience so frightening. By definition, panic attacks are often paired with strong physical symptoms and a debilitating fear, for example, that you are dying, having a heart attack, or going to collapse .
With this in mind, it is important to know what to do during the panic attack itself, and that support is available for long-term management. In this blog post, we’re going to be taking a look at what a panic attack is, how to recognise one, what can help as well as provide some useful calming strategies.
What is a panic attack?
As we mentioned earlier, anxiety and panic attacks are not synonymous. It is therefore important to know the difference between the two. Unlike panic attacks, anxiety usually has clear triggers such as an important job interview, interpersonal conflict, etc. Panic attacks, on the other hand, occur suddenly, without specific context, and usually last a few minutes . If you find that you have regular or recurring panic attacks, you may be suffering from a type of anxiety disorder called Panic Disorder. Most panic attacks last between 5-20 minutes, with exceptional cases reporting a duration of up to 1 hour. The recurrence of the attacks and the intensity of your symptoms is dependent on the severity of your condition.
How to recognise a Panic attack
As with any other disorder, panic attacks vary from person to person. However, a few common symptoms are usually experienced when having a panic attack.
Some symptoms of panic attacks/panic disorder include :
- Increased heart rate
- Feeling faint/light headed
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
- Hot flashes
- Numbness in limbs
- Sudden fear of dying or losing control
- Sense of imminent danger/doom
- Strong urge to leave/escape
Again, your experience of these symptoms can vary, with some people reporting that they experienced all of the symptoms described above, and others only one or two. For more, visit our page on Panic Disorder symptoms, causes and treatment.
What helps during a panic attack?
When having a panic attack, your thoughts and feelings can sometimes be indescribable. With that in mind, it is essential to know what you can do to help during a panic attack .
If you are experiencing a panic attack, be sure to:
- Remember to breathe. Take deep, slow breaths to regulate your heart rate and properly oxygenate your body.
- Remind yourself that you will be okay. It is important to remember that panic attacks always pass and that your symptoms are a result of anxiety, rather than actual imminent danger.
- Ride it out. Although you might immediately attempt to distract yourself, sometimes the best thing you can do is sit with your feelings and confront your fear head-on. Try to remain where you are and wait until your symptoms begin to subside. This can also serve as a learning experience that nothing is going to happen.
- Ground yourself in your surroundings. Once your symptoms begin to subside, take a look at your surroundings and group yourself in the current moment. You can do this by naming 5 objects you see around you for example.
- Seek out support. Once you begin to feel okay, reach out to a friend, loved one, or professional for support. You might want to call someone that makes you feel calmer even during the panic attack, especially if you’ve talked to them about this issue before.
What does not help during a panic attack?
- Don’t avoid feared situations. Although you might want to get away from certain situations that you fear, this type of avoidant behaviour will only reinforce the misconception that you are unsafe doing ordinary things. Instead, try confronting your fear head-on, but gradually, to show yourself that you will be okay.
- Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine. These substances can further increase your heart rate, make you feel nervous and shaky, and keep you awake. All 3 of these can trigger or worsen a panic attack .
- Don’t feel ashamed. Dealing with panic attacks in a public setting can feel embarrassing but it’s important to remind yourself that you have no reason to feel ashamed, as anyone can experience a panic attack. If you or your loved one is experiencing a panic attack, supportive statements can be helpful. For example, “you will get through this.”, “you’re not alone in this”, or “let’s ride it out”. 
4 Calming strategies for panic attacks
- Practise breathing exercises
Hyperventilating (i.e., fast and shallow breathing) is a common symptom of panic attacks that can increase the intensity of your fear. Studies have shown that slow breathing can improve feelings of comfort, alertness, and relaxation as well as reduce feelings of confusion and anxiety. Focus on inhaling deeply through your nose for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 1 second, and then exhale through your mouth for another 4 or 6 seconds .
- Close your eyes
Feeling overwhelmed can trigger panic attacks. If you find yourself surrounded by a lot of stimuli when the attack starts, close your eyes to reduce and block out extra stimuli that may be contributing to your panic .
- Practise mindfulness
Mindfulness can help in grounding you into reality. Often, panic attacks can feel like you are detached from your surroundings. Try techniques such as focusing your attention on the present (e.g., you can pick an object or piece of music and observe it with full awareness), identifying your emotional state, and meditating to help you relax.
- Use muscle relaxation techniques
Muscle tension is another symptom of panic attacks that promotes heightened anxiety. Techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation, help you to relax one muscle at a time throughout your body. Like deep breathing, muscle relaxation works to regulate your body’s physical symptoms and control your panic attack.
What to do if You’re Struggling
Knowing what to do when having recurrent panic attacks, especially once they start impacting your daily functioning can be incredibly difficult for anyone to handle alone. If you’ve noticed that you or your loved one is feeling depressed, overly avoidant or that their panic attacks are impairing their day-to-day life, consider reaching out to a professional.
At Therapy Central we provide treatment for panic attacks in London and everywhere else online. We use evidence-based interventions such as CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) and other approaches to help you cope with your panic attacks and get your life back on track. In this way, you’ll be able to talk about your experience with professionals who are equipped to provide you with the help you need.
Consider contacting one of our qualified therapists today.
You can contact us and request a free 15 min consultation to see whether our help will suit your needs.