Unless you’ve experienced one yourself, it’s hard to understand the terrifying sensation of a panic attack. Psychologist Dr. Danielle Forshee describes it as “an abrupt surge of intense fear or discomfort that reaches a peak within minutes.” You might also notice heart palpitations, an increased heart rate, sweating, trembling, chest pain, nausea, dizziness, numbness or tingling in your arms or legs, and feeling like you are detached from yourself or reality. (We told you it was scary.) And although most episodes subside within 20 minutes, there are a few things you can do to ease the process (for yourself or someone else experiencing it). Here, three techniques that can help during a panic attack.
1. Try diaphragmatic breathing. “A panic attack throws you into physiological distress because your brain believes you are in need of protection (aka in fight or flight mode),” Dr. Forshee tells us. “So one of the most effective strategies is to engage in diaphragmatic breathing.” That’s because when you’re experiencing a panic attack, your body tenses up and you tend to hyperventilate, taking short, quick breaths from your chest. “This type of breathing sends a signal to your brain that you are in distress, perpetuating the physiological escalation and by proxy, the panic attack.” Breathing through your diaphragm, on the other hand, sends a signal to your brain that you are safe and relaxed, which calms your physiology down and lets your body know that it no longer needs to be in hyper drive. Learn how to breathe from the diaphragm here.
2. Reframe your thoughts. “When someone is experiencing a panic attack, their mind is telling them that they are afraid of something,” says Dr. Forshee. “Rather than allowing your thoughts to perpetuate down that negative spiral, it’s important to tell yourself the opposite.” In other words, it’s all about restructuring your thoughts. So, instead of telling yourself that the bad thing will happen, try asking yourself, “what if that bad thing doesn’t happen?” (Easier said than done, we know.) It’s also helpful to remind yourself that all panic attacks end and that you just have to ride this one out.
3. Be wary of avoidant behavior. “Individuals suffering from panic attacks tend to try to avoid places, people, things or activities that they have associated with having panic attacks,” Dr. Forshee says. For example, if you experienced an episode in a restaurant, you might avoid dining out completely in the future. Or after having a panic attack while driving, you might start taking the bus everywhere. “Avoidant behavior is the exact opposite of what your brain requires to begin gaining confidence and competence in your abilities should you experience a panic attack,” she explains. Why? Because avoidance will perpetuate and worsen fears associated with experiencing an attack. Instead, try to slowly face the situations that you are afraid of until they no longer have such a hold on you. (Top tip: Ask your best friend to come with you the first couple of times—you’ll be so busy eating cheese fries, panic attacks will be the last thing on your mind.)