“There were times when I genuinely thought I was going to die,” Emma tells me, describing how utterly terrified she feels during a panic attack. It will cause her to sweat and struggle to catch her breath and the floor will feel like it is moving beneath her, forcing her legs to cave in. This feeling – like you’re going to die – isn’t uncommon. According to the mental health charity
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Symptom management plays a huge part in keeping panic attacks at bay. The Mental Health Foundation says the most helpful thing to do is try a combination of things that help manage stress, like doing regular exercise, eating well, and moderating intake of caffeine, alcohol or cigarettes.
Complimentary therapies like yoga and aromatherapy might also be beneficial in relaxing your mind and body. “For people who are struggling or often experiencing such episodes, psychological therapies that work through thoughts, feelings and behaviours can be helpful,” says Dr Kousoulis, who recommends getting in touch with your GP for a referral.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can be “very effective” in helping people to control feelings of panic and find coping mechanisms when attacks arise, says Anxiety UK. This form of therapy focuses on how people think and how these thoughts affect feelings and, ultimately, behaviour – yours and other people’s.
While medication is an uncommon route for people who have isolated panic attacks, it might be offered to those who have more intense cases and a diagnosis of panic disorder. “Medication would be recommended to treat an underlying or coexisting issue, like depression or anxiety,” Dr Kousoulis explains, “or to control the more dangerous symptoms of an attack, like evening out an irregular heartbeat.”
What To Do During An Attack
Identifying the signs and confronting the emotion of fear can be helpful during an attack, says Dr Kousoulis – “and it’s more easily done if someone is there to reassure you.” Because of the varied nature of panic attack symptoms, some people find help from others helpful while others find it more anxiety-inducing.
“Even just having one person try to address the issue (though I really appreciate it) makes it worse as that panics me,” says Sarah. “I’ll continually worry about what they will be thinking and this adds to the problem instead of omitting it.” But Calli, 20, disagrees. “It helps a huge amount because if I’m not in control they can do it for me,” she says. “If I’m on my own, I’ll usually ring a family member to help me out, they’ll stay on the phone whilst I’m having the panic attack, and won’t get off the phone until they know I’ve calmed down.”
Breathing techniques can be particularly useful for those who are prone to hyperventilating. One exercise that might help is breathing in as slowly, deeply and gently as you can, through your nose; and then breathing out in the same way. Some people find it helpful to count steadily from one to five on each in-breath and each out-breath.
Another useful technique which helps a lot of people is diverting their attention elsewhere. Sarah, for example, finds it useful to focus on the five senses to distract her mind. “Look for something and focus on it,” she says of this technique. “Try to smell something and focus on it, touch something and focus on it, listen to something and focus on it and – if you can – taste something and focus on that.” Experts recommend this approach, too.
Emily, 28, lives with generalised anxiety disorder and PTSD, and says the latter is often linked to her panic attacks, which she’s been having since she was a teen. They usually start with her heartbeat and breathing speeding up. “I then either do one of two things – I’ll start crying and get really hot or my brain will just say ‘Nope!’ and I’ll get really dizzy and have to sit down before I pass out and hit the deck,” she explains. When Emily feels a panic attack coming on, she tries to practise mindfulness – where she focuses her mind on the here and now. She will try to disrupt her own thoughts, telling herself her brain is sending out the wrong signals, before counting down slowly from 10.
“A therapist taught me a great calming technique called ‘leaves and clouds’ which works pretty well if you’re panicking,” she adds. “Hold your hands out in front of you, one above the other, palms facing you. Then slowly move them from left to right, then place the bottom hand above the top one and repeat this while breathing and focusing on the slow movement.”
*Some names have been changed upon request.