Panic attack symptons & how to handle a panic attack when it happens? Read a few of CHE's helpful tips.

Panic attacks can be terrifying experiences and frightening to witness. While some may experience fear and rapid breathing, others can feel like their lives are in danger.

If you or a loved one is experiencing a panic attack, following the right steps can help relieve the symptoms. In the event of a crisis, understanding the signs and taking appropriate action can create a safe environment and reduce stress.

What is a Panic Attack?

Panic attacks are sudden episodes of intense anxiety and fear accompanied by physical symptoms like shortness of breath, dizziness, or a racing heart. They often occur unexpectedly and usually are not linked to external threats. Panic attacks can occur any time, even while sleeping. Symptoms can last anywhere from a few minutes to half an hour.

Symptoms of a Panic Attack

While symptoms can vary from person to person, most people will experience one or more of the following:

  • Heart pounding and beating fast
  • Sweating
  • Feeling like it's hard to breathe
  • Feelings of choking
  • Chest pain
  • Nausea or discomfort in the stomach
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness, feeling like you might pass out
  • Chills or feelings of heat
  • Numbness or tingling in the body
  • Feeling separated from reality or your body
  • Fear of losing control
  • Fear of dying

How to Handle a Panic Attack

How does one handle a panic attack when it happens? Below are helpful tips to manage a panic attack.

1) Riding the Wave

Riding the wave is Like a wave in the ocean, our feelings and emotions don't last forever, rising and falling over time. Knowing that the intense feelings of a panic attack are temporary and cannot harm you can be the first step in managing them.

With these ideas in mind, the intense feelings of a panic attack can be thought of as a wave in the ocean, and you are the surfer riding it. By riding the wave of emotion, you can separate yourself from it and use other skills to calm yourself until the wave crashes and the panic attack ends.

2) Breathing

The intense feelings during a panic attack often result in short and quick breaths that can cause your heart to beat faster and create a sense that you can't breathe. By changing the common breathing pattern during a panic attack, the heart can be made to beat slower, creating sensations of calmness in the body.

To do this, first, take a deep breath through your nose for about 4 seconds. Second, let the breath out through your mouth for about 8 seconds while holding it in the same position as if you were saying, "ooh."

3) 5-4-3-2-1 method

The 5-4-3-2-1 method is a skill to help take your mind off the what-ifs of the future and keep your focus on the present. Begin by slowly counting down from 5 and engaging a different sense at each number.

For example, begin by identifying 5 things that you can see around you, then 4 things you can hear, 3 things that you can touch, 2 things that you can smell, and 1 thing that you can taste. Feel free to pick an order that feels most comfortable to you and modify as needed.

4) Mantra

A mantra is a repeated word, phrase, or passage that brings a sense of peace, strength, and focus to the person saying it. This mantra can be a pleasant word or nickname, a poem, an uplifting quote, a religious passage, or anything else that holds meaning to you.

By repeating the mantra and pairing it with a breathing exercise, the body can be calmed, and the mind can be refocused on something pleasant rather than the sensations of anxiety.

5) Progressive Muscle Relaxation

One of the main physical symptoms of anxiety and panic attacks is tension in the body's muscles. One way to reduce the tension in the body and focus the mind on the present is through a skill called progressive muscle relaxation.

To perform progressive muscle relaxation, beginning at your toes, flex your muscles for 5-10 seconds each and slowly move up your body until you have achieved a sense of relaxation.

What to Do When Someone Else is Having a Panic Attack

Watching a loved one suffer from a panic attack can be very upsetting. They may feel as if they are having a heart attack or other life-threatening conditions. Fortunately, there are several things you can do to help.

Remain Calm

When a loved one is having a panic attack, remain calm and do not let the situation overwhelm you. Keeping a calm demeanor and speaking softly can reassure them that everything will be fine. Most panic attacks do not last long, so sitting by their side and staying relaxed can help them recover faster.

Move Them to a Quiet Area

Sights and sounds can often make a panic attack worse. If possible, try to find a quiet area away from other people. If you're in a crowded building, go outside. If you are in a classroom, go out into the hall.

Sitting in a quiet place will give the person space to focus on their breathing and coping techniques. As panic attacks can be embarrassing for those experiencing them, moving to a quiet place can also reduce the fear of being judged by others.

Ask What You Can Do to Help

It is likely that your friend or family member already knows how you can help them. Some people may need a quiet place to calm down. Others may need you to sit by their side or help them with breathing exercises.

Asking them what they need can help them to feel more in control of the situation. If you have a family member or friend who frequently suffers from panic attacks, find out what makes them feel more comfortable ahead of time.

Know the Early Warning Signs

Learning the early warning signs of panic attacks will help you better assist someone experiencing a panic attack. The sooner you recognize what is happening, the sooner you can help them find a quiet place and make them feel more comfortable.

Early signs of a panic attack include:

  • Intense feelings of fear or dread
  • Rapid breathing or shortness of breath
  • Choking sensation
  • Increased heart rate
  • Feeling dizzy or shaky

Understand Their Panic May Seem Illogical

Panic attacks are often unpredictable with no apparent cause. While they can happen during a stressful situation, they can also happen on a normal day, when relaxing, or while sleeping. Therefore, it's important to understand that a person's response may not always match the circumstance. An individual who experiences panic attacks may even become anxious over the symptoms themselves.

Validate Their Distress

While panic attacks may not always make sense to an outsider, their feelings are real and cannot always be controlled. When someone is experiencing a panic attack, try to listen and be empathetic. Validate their feelings and ask what you can do to help.

Keep Them Grounded

Grounding techniques can help a person focus on what is actually happening, rather than what they fear. If the person allows it, ask if you can hold their hand or give them a hug. Encourage them to move or stretch. For some, it may even be helpful to repeat a comforting phrase like, "My symptoms are temporary and I will be okay."

Respect Their Needs

Having a panic attack can be a terrifying experience that affects a person's mental and physical state. Once the episode has passed, it's common to feel completely drained as the body returns to normal after an extreme emotional and physical response. After a panic attack, someone might not feel like doing anything except relaxing. Respect their needs and allow them to recover.

Know When to Get Help

Watching someone have a panic attack can be frightening, but when do you need to call for help? While calling 911 might seem like the best course of action, for someone experiencing a panic attack, it can make the situation even worse. In most cases, just staying by their side can make a significant difference in helping them overcome the experience.

However, the following signs indicate that you should seek emergency help:

  • Chest pain feels like squeezing and radiates into their shoulders or arms
  • Symptoms persist for more than 20 minutes and get worse
  • Shortness of breath doesn't go away
  • Intense pressure in the chest lasts longer than two minutes

Anxiety Care at CHE

If you have anxiety attacks often, it may be time to start looking for a therapist with whom you would feel comfortable. Starting therapy doesn't mean you’re locked in for any amount of time, so don’t be afraid to meet with one and see how it makes you feel.

If you’d like to give it a go, let us know here at CHE Behavioral Health Services! Call us at 888-515-3834, try our FREE mood screening with no obligations or sign-up with a provider of your choice.