Riding the Wave and Staying Present: 5 Ways to Calm a Panic Attack
August 1, 2022
Everyone knows the feeling of fear, the sudden onset of tension that tells the body to run away, freeze, or fight. Anxiety can feel like fear, resulting in the same feelings and reactions. Fear tends to be a reaction to something threatening near us, like seeing a snake or spider, while anxiety tends to be in response to ideas and what could happen in the future.
A panic attack, on the other hand, is a sudden and extreme feeling of anxiety that can sometimes feel like it came out of nowhere. This feeling is disproportionate to the situation the person is in or can be completely unrelated to what is happening around them. Sometimes, given the intense physiological symptoms that typically occur, the person may also feel like they are dying (e.g. having a heart attack) or fear they “are going crazy.”
Symptoms of a Panic Attack
Heart pounding and beating fast
Feeling like it's hard to breathe
Feelings of choking
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 does one handle a panic attack when it happens? Below are helpful tips to manage a panic attack.
1) Riding the Wave
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.
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.
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.
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.
By Spencer Palache, BS, BA