Expert tips

Am I having a panic attack? What to do next
By Dr. Ho Anh, 06/17/2020

Panic or anxiety attacks can come about without warning, with symptoms often peaking within 10 minutes. It can be disorienting or frightening to have one, and often, it feels like your heart is pounding quickly as you start to sweat and experience dizziness. Your breath might feel shorter and you might feel an impending sense of doom.

If you've experienced this, you might have just gone through a panic attack. Known also as an anxiety attack, the symptoms can develop abruptly but rarely last more than an hour. Most end within 20 to 30 minutes and can happen anywhere - at the gym, while shopping, or even at home.

Panic attacks are more likely to come about when a person is experiencing extreme stress, like working 16-hour days or undergoing major life changes. They can come from physical, emotional, or financial stress. There might also be roots of anxiety in issues you are having with your family.

For someone undergoing their first panic attack, it can be difficult to recognize what is happening or know what to do. It can be as severe as feeling like you might pass out, not wake up, or even go crazy. But fortunately, they pass. In the event that this happens again, here's how to identify if you're having a panic attack and what you can do next.

Signs and symptoms of a panic or anxiety attack and ways to stop them.

Signs or symptoms that are often present during a panic attack

  • Sweating
  • Shortness of breath or hyperventilation
  • Feeling dizzy or unsteady or faint
  • Accelerated heart rate
  • Sensation of smothering
  • Hot or cold flashes
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Nausea or abdominal distress
  • Feeling of losing control or unreality
  • Fear of dying or going crazy

Immediate ways to calm your panic attack

  1. Refocus your attention. Ground yourself in your senses, whether it's the feeling of the ground beneath your feet or clothing against your skin. This mindfulness practice can help combat the feeling of detachment associated with panic attacks. If you prefer, you can find one object to focus all your attention on, like the texture of the walls and how it's not perfectly smooth or rough.
  2. Focus on taking slow, deep breaths. Feel the air flow in and out of your chest and focus on counting your breaths. Breathe in for four seconds, hold, then out for four. Keep repeating until you feel yourself calming.
  3. Use muscle relaxation techniques. Similar to how the breathing exercise encourages you to focus on your breath, you can also focus on your muscles. Relax one muscle at a time. Start at the top with the muscles your face and neck, then moving down through your arms, to your fingers, through your torso, down to the muscles in your legs and feet.
  4. Splash water on your face. This will help refresh and reset.
  5. Remind yourself that these feelings aren't dangerous and will pass. Whether you recognize it as a panic attack or not, know that what you're experiencing has happened to others and it is not uncommon. Even if you feel frightened or feel a sense of doom, try to think that in an hour, this will have passed.
  6. Go for a walk or do light exercises. If you can catch your breath, clear your mind with physical activity and space away from your present environment.

It can feel frightening to have a panic attack if you've never experienced one before but remember that they will pass. In the long term, it might be worthwhile to reflect on the environment or circumstances that caused your panic attack and brainstorm ways to adjust or remove your stressor. Activities like journaling, speaking with someone you trust, and exercise, are a few ways to manage your day-to-day. If the panic attacks become frequent, then there's the chance of having panic disorder, which can be alleviated through therapy or antidepressants. At the end of the day, each person will learn to manage the panic in their own way and remember that panic attacks always pass.

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Disclaimer: Sometimes people mistaken panic attacks for heart attacks, which are medical events/emergencies. This is seen in patients who have a history of obesity, diabetes, or heart disease. Be sure to discuss this with your primary care doctor to assess the risk factors for actually having a heart attack.

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