What to do when you are having a panic attack

What to Do When You Are Having a Panic Attack

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Panic attacks are so intense that many people will think they are having a heart attack and end up in emergency rooms. In my own experience, they have felt like someone has taken wire and laced it around my ribs and is pulling it taught. My lungs will feel like they can’t take in enough oxygen and my heart races uncontrollably. Everyone describes them differently but they are awful. My hope is this article will teach you what to do when you are having a panic attack. Below are more symptoms as well as a few simple treatments.

Symptoms include:

  • racing heartbeat
  • difficulty breathing, feeling like you can’t get enough air
  • terror that is almost paralyzing
  • dizziness, lightheadedness or nausea
  • trembling, sweating, shaking
  • choking, chest pains
  • fear that you’re going to go crazy or are about to die

What to do:

My first piece of advice would be to not to understand that panic attacks are like a wave and while they feel very intense as you go through them, they ultimately will pass. So, the best thing you can do as implement some different coping mechanisms to help you work through them. These coping mechanisms fall into 3 different categories: breathing techniques, counseling, and medication. Medication and breathing techniques will help you through the short term effects and counseling will help you through the long term ones. More information dealing with panic attacks can be found here.

Breath based techniques:
  • 5-2-5 Count: Using your stomach, inhale for a count of 5 seconds. Then, at your maximal point of inhalation (the point where you feel you can’t breathe in any more) hold your breath for a count of 2 seconds. Then, exhale all the built up air over another count of 5 seconds. This cycle should be repeated twice, followed by 5 cycles of breathing normally. The overall point of this exercise, and why it’s proven to be effective as panic attack treatment, is because it focuses the person on breathing – and the process that pertains to it –instead of focusing on the intense fear and anxiety caused by the panic attack.
  • Physical Exercise: Although this isn’t directly a breathing exercise, it is one of the best methods of panic attack treatment. Doctors suggest working out 30 minutes a day will reduce the onset of panic attacks. It’s more of a natural habit (like sleeping and eating healthy) that tends to lead to a healthier and more ordered mind.
  • Paper Bag: Another breathing exercise and one the best instant panic attack treatment is to breath into a plastic bag. Doctors warn, though, that breathing into a paper bag is not the best option and can be deadly if done for a long period of time. This is where understanding what set of triggers and symptoms a specific sufferer feels. For instance, panic attack victims who have hyperventilation as one of the consequences of having an attack are usually told by doctors to avoid using a paper bag as a coping mechanism. (more)
Counseling can get into the deeper underlying issues. I see this a lot with people going through stress, PTSD, and transition in their lives. This could be do to a divorce or things that they aren’t even aware of on a conscious level like being unhappy with a job not realizing it till they have symptoms of the stress manifesting through things like panic attacks. Counseling can dig deeper down into these issues and help lead to insights which will reduce stain and implement improved coping mechanisms. If you choose to try counseling, I suggest you sample several counselors and see who feels like the right fit for you. If you don’t feel like it is the right fit, you aren’t going to do good work. We can assist you in your journey to find help. You can read more about anxiety counseling or contact us to make a counseling appointment.
Medication can be a piece of the puzzle for successful treatment but many times it will only treat the symptom and not the problem. Many doctors will prescribe things like Xanax for panic attacks but people can become addicted to drugs in the class very easily and it is very short acting. For anyone struggling with panic attacks I would suggest they consult with a well reviewed psychiatrist for a medical evaluation. General practitioners like your family doctor are not as experienced in issues like this and may miss things or misdiagnose what may be obvious to a psychiatrist. If you need suggestions in this area, we will be glad to provide assistance.
(Photo credit: Henry Rollins)