Many people describe having had an anxiety attack. Some common symptoms include: sweating, pounding heart, sensations of shortness of breath, feeling dizzy, chest pain, and even a fear of “going crazy” or dying. While the experience can be different for different people, most agree that they are uncomfortable, distressing, abrupt, and that they would like to never have one again. While doing the items on the list cannot ensure they never happen again, it may help reduce their frequency and the intensity of the attack.
- Educate yourself about panic and anxiety. Learning about the causes of panic and our fight-or-flight response can be helpful in understanding that unexplained panic is generally what we call a “false alarm.” It is a trigger letting you know that you are uncomfortable because of the physical sensations you are having or from the situation you are in; it is nothing worse than that.
- Notice the sensations. Identify what is happening in your body by nonjudgmentally labeling your physical experiences. For instance, calmly observing, “I am experiencing a faster heart beat and feeling warm in my face and neck” can be a useful skill for slowing down what is happening without jumping to conclusions like, “I must be having a heart attack.”
- Recognize panic for what it is. Recognizing that you are having a panic attack is a way to remind yourself that the experience is temporary, and it will pass with a bit of time. Take away the fear that something worse is happening.
- Take deep breaths. Breathing in deeply through your nose for a count of 4, holding for 1-2 seconds, and breathing out for a count of 5 not only can start to slow your breathing but it also gives you something else to focus on that you have some control over. Engaging in diaphragmatic breathing stimulates the relaxation response and turns off the fight-or-flight response.
- Relax your muscles. Using a muscle relaxing technique called Progressive Muscle Relaxation involves first squeezing or tensing a certain muscle group and then releasing that same area. One option is to start at your toes and after tensing and relaxing there, gradually move up your body until you reach your neck and head.
- Ground yourself in the present moment. Using a strategy called mindfulness can help focus your mind on something specific other than your panic. One exercise involves noticing and experiencing 5 things around you that you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste. Don’t just name the things, immerse yourself in the experience using each of your senses.
- Close your eyes. Sometimes we are overwhelmed by the multitude of things happening around us. Closing your eyes can reduce much of the input, making it easier to think clearly or work on relaxation strategies.
- Repeat a calming phrase. Focusing on something like a mantra or statement can help focus your mind but also remind yourself that you are thinking clearly and will be okay. It could be something like, “this will be over soon” or whatever phrase speaks to you. Pick your phrase before you are panicking, however, as it will be much harder to choose when stressed.
- Go to your happy place in your mind. Visualize a safe, happy, or calm place (real or imaginary). Maybe you start with what you see but be sure to explore and experience the place using all five of your senses. If you are imagining swinging in a hammock between trees, also take note of sounds (e.g., birds chirping, the rope hammock creaking just a bit), smells (e.g., sap from pine trees), feelings (e.g., the breeze as you rock back and forth), and tastes (e.g., a lemonade with ice and a sprig of mint).
- Drink cold water. Drink water and notice the coolness radiating down your throat and through your chest and body. People often feel warm when anxious and drinking cold water, running your hands under cold water, or putting a cool washcloth on the back of your neck can work wonders.
~Dr. Carrie Chiasson