Advice on what to do during a panic attack
A panic attack is a sudden feeling of intense anxiety that happens without warning. It is often accompanied by powerful physical symptoms and can be so frightening that people can believe that they are having a heart attack, collapsing or even dying.
It is important to know what to do in the moment when a panic attack arises and recognise that there is help available to support in the longer term.
No-one wants to experience panic attacks. At Priory Group, we know that they can stop a person from being able to live their life to the full. With the right treatment, panic attacks can be controlled and prevented, allowing a person to take steps towards living a healthy and fulfilling life.
What to do when you are having a panic attack
If you struggle with panic attacks, we have outlined strategies that you can use which can help you in the moment:
Remind yourself what is happening
Safely stop what you are doing so that you can focus on what you are thinking.
Tell yourself that your mind and body are just choosing to react intensely to your thoughts when they don’t need to. It isn’t a heart attack and you’re not going to collapse or die.
Control your breathing
Your breathing may quicken during a panic attack. The hyperventilation you experience can cause you to become even more frightened as you worry about not being able to breathe. Focus on breathing slowly, deeply and as gently as possible.
Breathe in through the nose for three seconds, hold the breath for two seconds and breathe out through the mouth for three seconds.
You may want to close your eyes to help you focus. By doing this, you can calm your breathing, reduce your physical symptoms, and stop the panic cycle.
Remind yourself that this panic attack will pass
Statements like “panic is just a high level of anxiety” and “my panic will pass naturally given time and won’t last forever” can help you recognise that this is just a moment - you aren’t controlled by panic attacks and this will eventually go away.
Practise mindfulness and re-focus
Panic attacks can leave you feeling detached from reality. Focus on your surroundings – what can you hear, taste, see, smell and touch? Doing something like placing your feet on the floor or feeling the texture of your t-shirt can help to re-focus you away from your racing thoughts.
You could also try and focus on something in the room such as a picture, clock or a plant, and think carefully about the shape, pattern, colour and size of it. You may even want to go to an imaginary place that makes you feel relaxed. Once there, focus all your energy on what you can hear, taste, see, smell and touch. Doing these exercises can help to re-focus you and distract you from the panic and its symptoms.
Is someone else having the panic attack?
If your friend or family member has panic attacks, some things that you can do to help include the following:
- Stay calm to let the person know that everything is and will be ok. The person might be scared - try to remember that a panic attack is just an intense response to stress. Don’t act panicked or voice their fears – instead be a soothing voice of encouragement
- Stay with the person as they ride out the panic attack – remind them you are there to support them and that it will pass
- Be understanding and empathetic – don’t act embarrassed, ashamed or ask them to stop, as they can’t help what they are going through. Instead be positive, tell them how well they are doing and that you know they can get through this
- Try to help through deep breathing or guided imagery to help redirect a person’s focus
You may also want to encourage them to seek help. If their panic attacks are having an impact on their home or work life, they may want to get the support of a mental health professional.
Getting treatment for panic attacks
We understand that panic attacks are incredibly distressing, but it is important to understand that there is treatment that can help them to be reduced or resolved.
Our specialists at Priory are highly experienced in treating people with panic and anxiety. They are able to use treatments such as the following:
- Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – CBT works by addressing any dysfunctional thought patterns that may be contributing to panic attacks. It can help a person to re-evaluate these thoughts in a healthier way
- Medication - certain antidepressant medication, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), or other medications, can be used alongside CBT to further support in the management of panic attacks
Through therapy at Priory, a person can tackle the underlying causes of their panic attacks, identify triggers and learn effective strategies that they can use to minimise panic attacks and manage them if and when they occur.
This page was reviewed by Dr Ed Burns, Consultant Psychiatrist at Priory Hospital Roehampton, in December 2019, and is scheduled to be reviewed again in December 2021.