A panic attack, otherwise known as an anxiety attack, is when someone feels intensely overwhelmed. They can be caused by a life stressor, such as a divorce, death, or public speaking. Many times, though, they occur spontaneously for no apparent reason. Typically the person will experience physical symptoms such as:
- Heart palpitations or a racing or pounding heart
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
Additionally, many people report a wide array of feelings, including:
- Fear of going crazy
- Fear of losing control
- Fear of dying (especially if they are experiencing any chest pain)
- Feeling detached from themselves
- Feeling like they are no longer in reality
Panic attacks can feel so overwhelming and debilitating. Here are several ideas on how to de-escalate yourself when you feel a panic attack coming on.
1. Belly breathing. Many people know that deep breathing is supposed to help them, but report that it does not or that it makes the situation worse. Typically this is because they are breathing incorrectly by filling their chest with air. Doing so can actually exacerbate the situation and cause someone to hyperventilate. Instead, try belly breathing. Place one hand on your chest and one on your belly. The goal is to have your belly rise and fall as opposed to your chest. Then, breath into your nose and out through your mouth. Many people find it helpful to count while breathing. For example, breath in for four counts, hold your breath for four counts, and breathe out for eight counts.
2. Progressive Muscle Relaxation. When someone is having a panic attack, their body naturally tenses up. By relaxing the muscles, breathing and the mind are also able to slow down. Start with any part of your body, such as your hand. Clench your hand tight and then relax it. Move slowly up your arm, clenching and releasing your muscles as you go, until you have gone from head-to-toe. You can do this exercise while doing the breathing exercise. Breath in for four counts while clenching your fist, hold for four counts still clenching, exhale for eight counts while relaxing your hand.
3. Describe something in detail. The goal here is to get your prefrontal cortex of your brain to re-engage. When someone is having a panic attack, their prefrontal cortex essentially shuts down. This is the part of the brain that controls rational thought, so it helps to get it up and running again. This exercise is best done aloud. Pick an everyday task and describe it in detail. Here is an example: I will describe myself walking to my car to go somewhere:
- Stand up.
- Turn off lights in the office.
- Walk to my office door.
- Open the door and walk through the doorway.
- Close the door.
- Walk to the coat rack.
- Put on a coat, hat, and gloves.
- Pick up my purse.
- Open the door to the garage and walk through the doorway.
- Close the door.
- Push button to open garage door.
- Walk down the steps and to the car.
- Place hand on door handle and open car door.
- Get into the car and close the door.
- Place the purse on the passenger seat.
Describing something is such detail helps refocus the brain and slow things down, which helps in slowing down the panic attack.
4. Change the temperature: When someone is having a panic attack, sometimes they feel quite warm. Counter this feeling by taking a cold shower, holding ice in your hand, drinking a cold beverage, or putting a bag of frozen peas on the back of your neck. These work to jolt your body and brain out of the panic attack and back into reality.
5. Engage your five senses: Another way to get back into your body is to engage your senses in a 5-4-3-2-1 exercise. Out loud, name five things you can see and describe them. Touch four things and describe them (texture, temperature, weight, etc.). Listen for three sounds and name them. Find two things that have a scent and smell them, again describing the scent. Lastly, find a food or drink you can taste and describe it.