Panic Attack First Aid |

4 min read
Engin Akyurt/Pexels

Source: Engin Akyurt/Pexels

A panic attack is a dreaded experience. Your heart races, you can’t breathe. Often, you can’t tell if you are dying.

It’s no surprise that several individuals begin to avoid places or other situations that they believe could trigger this, sometimes to the extreme of confining themselves to their home, as in the case of agoraphobia.

Most people will have at least one panic attack in a lifetime, perhaps at a seriously stressful time. Occasional panic attacks are normal. Yet, when panic begins to “call the shots” regarding what you can and cannot do when someone feels they need to avoid things to avoid the panic, it interferes with life. In addition, frequent and severe panic attacks are extremely distressing.

So, how can you get through a panic attack when one shows up? Everyone’s methods are different. What follows are survival strategies drawing from acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) (Hayes et al., 2012) and other mindfulness-based practices, which I have found helpful as a therapist and in my own life.

1. Allow the Panic to Exist. I know this sounds so counterintuitive. No one wants a panic attack. Yet, in the midst of one, the panic is already present. Invite it in. Notice it.

2. Be Curious. It’s hard to be curious when you are anxious. And it’s hard to be anxious when you are curious. The goal is not to chase the panic attack away. Notice it. Notice how your body and mind are reacting. Try to observe it as if you were an alien going through this for the first time.

3. Remember That All You Have to Deal with Is Right Now. Panic loves catastrophic future thinking, which only fuels it. Focus on just the next five seconds. Breathe into this. All you have to deal with is these next five seconds.

4. Feel or Watch Your Heartbeat. Even if it seems like you are training for the next marathon, tuning into your pulse can bring you into the moment. You can only focus on your present pulse. Sometimes, I will take my fitness watch and view as my heartbeat speeds up and slows down.

One behavioral strategy—paradoxical intention—rests on asking your body for the opposite of what you want. This lets you know that you are not afraid. I will tell myself, how high can I get my heart rate up this time? It helps.

5. Go Outside. The outdoors release you from the containment of a building and greet you with cool, fresh air. This can be soothing. You may find squirrels playing in the trees or see a flower. These sights can be anchors pulling you back to the present moment.

6. No Matter What, Do Not Let the Panic Become Your Boss. Panic is very good at convincing people to avoid things. That’s where it gets its power. Through avoidance, you become painted into a corner while the panic reins over you and your life. As much as you can, try not to make a habit of avoiding panic triggers.

7. Shower. Cool water can activate the mammalian dive reflex, helping you to calm down quickly. Focusing on the feel of the water and the smell of your care products can also help to ground you.

8. Remember That You Have Made it Through Every Panic Attack You’ve Had. Panic is terrifying. Yet, the reality is that its power is almost entirely our fear of panic. Empower yourself by reminding yourself you will get through this. You always have.

9. Walk or Fidget. Sometimes we need to move. The energy from the panic needs to go somewhere. This is where walking helps. Walking and fidgeting can also serve as grounding strategies to return to the present.

10. Key Into Your Senses. You might be familiar with the five senses grounding technique. Narrowing your attention to any one sense can help you regain your grounding. This might be focusing on vision and the colors around you. It could also be in listening to music. You might seek out soothing senses like the smell of a candle that reminds you of your grandma’s home. Or perhaps you choose something intense but steady, like a song with a strong beat.

11. Carry On. Life goes on after panic. Once the storm has passed, give yourself kindness and go on with your day.

In Closing

Panic attacks are common. These strategies may help you to get through one more easily. If you are troubled by repeated, intense panic, psychotherapy such as acceptance and commitment therapy can help.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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