A panic attack is a sudden and intense wave of discomfort. One moment you’re OK, next moment, you’re terrified and distressed. The panic attack can last a few minutes or go on for 20 minutes. It can happen anywhere – in a crowded or open space, at home or at work, during sleep or wakefulness, and even while traveling.
Signs and symptoms of a panic attack
So, what constitutes a panic attack? When the attack is unfolding, your body goes through a series of physical and mental sensations that make you feel like:
- You can’t breathe
- You’re choking
- You’re going to faint
- You want to throw up
- You’re dying
- You’re trapped
- You’re in danger
Physical panic attack symptoms include sweating, shaking, and shivering, discomfort in the stomach and chest, pounding in the heart, and tingling in the toes and fingers. You may experience many of these signs of a panic attack, or just a few. However, when you get frequent panic attacks and your quality of life is affected to the extent that you start avoiding situations for fear of an attack, then you have a panic disorder – a more serious anxiety disorder that requires treatment.
Panic attack – risk factors
It’s not clear what causes panic attacks. But you are considered at risk if:
- Panic attacks run in your family
- You have severe stress due to bereavement and divorce, for instance
- You’re experiencing major life changes such as a job loss
- You have performance anxiety in your new job
- You’re using stimulants such as caffeine, drugs and alcohol
- You have a co-occurring condition such as anxiety, bipolar disorder, or depression.
Even menopausal panic attacks have been known to occur. However, panic attacks can still happen, even in the absence of all of the above factors.
Panic attack self-help
There are lots of ways of managing the panic attack, no matter where you are – at home, at work, at a job interview, or on public transport, – and no matter your personal circumstances. Here are some tips to help you overcome your panic symptoms.
Breathe slowly and deeply
Breathing exercises are a great panic attack cure and they work in any panic attack situation. Slow, deep breaths from the stomach, not the chest, can help calm you when an attack happens. Inhale for a count of 4, extending your stomach out, as far as it can go, and taking in as much air as you can, then slowly release your breath to a count of 4. Concentrating on this breathing action can help calm the mind and lessen the shallow-breathing symptoms associated with a panic attack. During a job interview or presentation, one long breath should suffice so you don’t lose focus
Leave the scene
Certain noises and procedures may bring on an attack. So, when panic attacks you can leave the scene for a bit and go to the bathroom, or the kitchen. Once there, you can induce calm by splashing cold water on your wrists, face, and back of the neck. You can ask for this time out, even during an interview. During a presentation you can create a diversion that enables you to exit the room for a while, walk around the room, or have a drink of water. You could ask a question that requires a period of quiet contemplation, or you could get people to introduce themselves at intervals. This enables you to walk around, go to the bathroom or drink water. Structure your presentation to include these timely breaks, If you’re in an elevator, sitting in a plane or driving somewhere, you’ll have to stay put and instead have a drink of water or concentrate on your breathing.
Work your body
Exercise produces endorphins, which are hormones that calm the mind and body, and relieve the panic attack. Light exercise is possible even at work. You can get up from your chair, stretch, march on the same spot, lower and lift your arms or do jumping jacks but you’d probably want to confine such activities to the bathroom or the outside area of your work place. Walk around if you can, wherever you are. Walking is an excellent light exercise for releasing endorphins and it offers a refreshing break from the panic inducing environment. Add breathing exercises to your walk for an even greater lift.
Panic attacks remove you from reality and focus your attention on the sensations invoked by the attack. Mindfulness helps you relieve panic attack symptoms by bringing you back to the present. One quick way to achieve mindfulness is to pick an object at random and then focus your 5 senses on it. Notice how it looks, smells, sounds, feels, and if possible, tastes. You can keep a snack in your bag for this purpose or grab one from the kitchen if at home. It obviously wouldn’t work for a job interview or presentation.
Conjure up a peaceful scene
In preparation for a panic attack, establish in your mind, a place that gives you the most peace or happiness—a botanical garden perhaps, or a place by the sea. When panic strikes, close your eyes and picture yourself in such a place with all the relaxing sights, sounds and smells.
Relax your muscles
When you feel the signs of a panic attack coming on, you could try progressively relaxing your muscles from head to toe. This increases your feelings of peace and well-being. Tense your toes for 5 seconds, for instance, then inhale for another 5 seconds. Hold this action then release and relax.
Connect with people
Panic attacks can make you feel isolated and detached. If alone at home, connect with a friend or family member on the phone. If at work, strike up a conversation with a colleague and really listen to them. During a job interview, informing the interviewers of your nervous state is not a bad idea. They may give you time to calm yourself before they continue because their main concern is whether or not you can do the job.
Stay with the attack
Try to be curious about your panic attack. Observe it as though it’s happening to someone else. Write down the thoughts and sensations you are feeling. It’s a way of demystifying your fear and thus reducing the regularity of the panic attack.
When alone at home, you could light a candle infused with the scents of chamomile or lavender. Aromatherapy is a natural form of panic attack relief.
Self-care is also important for controlling panic attacks, so be sure to eat a balanced diet, sleep more and avoid caffeine, cigarettes, and alcohol which are known panic portals. It also helps to join a panic attack support group in order to exchange ideas on ways to cope.