Updated: Mar 9, 2022
Panic attacks can come on suddenly with emotional and physical symptoms. It is important to understand the signs and symptoms so that you can help yourself or a loved one through it.
What is it? A panic attack is a sudden intense surge of fear, panic, or anxiety.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms can include difficulty breathing, hyperventilation, crying, sweating, trembling or shaking, numbness (pins and needles), and an elevated heart rate.
Some people will experience chest pain during a panic attack and may think they are experiencing a heart attack.
By understanding the symptoms, you can reassure yourself and others that this is a panic attack and it will pass.
How long does it last?
The body will naturally defuse a panic attack and it should end within 20 minutes. It can be an overwhelming and exhausting experience but it will end.
How can I help myself through it?
1. First it is necessary to recognize that you are having a panic attack. Notice the physical symptoms listed above and if your thoughts and feelings are overwhelming. Tell yourself and trusted people around you that this is a panic attack and you are going to be okay.
If others do not know what a panic attack is, list the symptoms you have and say that you are physically and emotionally uncomfortable. Ask them to stay by you and to follow your lead.
2. If you are driving or operating anything heavy or dangerous, stop doing the activity safely.
3. If you are triggered by the space you are in try to relocate to a place that is less busy or feels safer to you. Bring someone with you if that feels right.
4. Focus on your breathing. Breathe in for 4 counts, hold for 4 counts, breathe out for 4 counts, hold for 4 counts, repeat. If you have the ability, listen to 3 minute breathing space or another short guided breathing meditation.
5. Focus on the present. Look at what is right in front of you. Ground yourself to the current moment. You can do the following grounding practice focused on your senses:
list, out-loud or in your head: 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste.
6. If your physical symptoms are not passing, try splashing your face with water, holding ice cubes, or placing/digging your hands into the ground around you to change what you are physically feeling.
7. Once you have diffused some of the most major symptoms, try to identify what triggered the attack and mitigate the issue. Use HALT. Are you hungry, angry, lonely, or tired? Can you do anything to change this?
8. When you feel yourself coming down from the panic attack, think of something easy and safe you can do until you regain the energy necessary to go on with your day. This can be:
listening to music
going on a light walk
watching a funny video
talking to a friend
9. Recognize that what you went through was physically exhausting and nothing to be embarrassed about. Take it easy on yourself.
10. If anything triggered the attack, take note of it and think about how you can avoid becoming overwhelmed in that situation again.
How can I help someone else through a panic attack?
1. Remind them that they are having a panic attack and they are going to be okay and it will not last long. Continue this reassurance throughout their panic attack.
2. Help them get to a safe place nearby. Maybe to another room or just sitting down.
3. Sit next to them but do not touch them unless invited to. Say that you are there for them and not going anywhere until they feel better.
4. Do the breathing exercises and grounding exercises listed above with them.
5. DO NOT tell them to "calm down", that they are "overreacting", or they are "embarrassing you".
6. Ask them what you can do to make this experience easier for them. Can you get them some water, headphones, some food, etc.?
7. Once the panic attack has passed, remind them that this a human experience and they have nothing to be ashamed of.