In 2019, I wrote a blog post titled ‘Surviving a Panic Attack’. I was reviewing the post while updating my website & realized that there was MUCH more to say on the topic, especially after working with hundreds of clients since the original post.
Did you know that every year up to 11% of Americans experience a panic attack?
I am happy to report I haven’t had a panic attack in the past 2.5 years. This isn’t to say I’ll never have another one in my life, only time will tell, but I can tell you that I don’t worry about having them anymore - and know if I do have one, I have the tools to survive it.
Panic attacks are sudden periods of intense fear that can occur at any time - even during sleep! It’s important to note: a panic attack might cause you to feel like you're having a heart attack or lose control of yourself. At the peak of a panic attack, your heart is palpitating, your breathing is rapid and shallow, and you may feel like you're going to die or go crazy. You might even feel like you're losing your mind. The physical symptoms include trembling, sweating, nausea and dizziness. After a panic attack, many people experience depression and anxiety for weeks or months after the incident.
Multiple panic attacks can lead to being diagnosed with a panic disorder. About 1.7% of the adult U.S. population ages 18 to 54 -- approximately 2.4 million Americans -- has a panic disorder in a given year.
Listen up ladies : women are 2x as likely as men to develop a panic disorder.
I highly encourage all of my clients to reach out to their healthcare provider if they experience a panic attack (especially if more than 1). I also recommend they all consider working with a therapist (if they aren't already), and am more than happy to share resources to help find the right support.
Below, I share basic strategies to survive a panic attack.
1️⃣. Sit down. Put your feet on the floor & ground yourself. Envision that your feet are going down into the core of the earth and that there's roots going from the bottom of your feet into the earth.
2️⃣. Breathe. Remind yourself to breathe, slowly. Breathe in for 3 seconds, hold for 3 seconds, breathe out for 3 seconds. Do this slowly. There's no need to rush this process, just keep reminding yourself to breathe in & out, in & out. This isn’t a contest…and if it were, the slowest person would win!
3️⃣. Remind yourself you’re going to be okay, even say phrases out loud such as : I will be okay, I am a survivor, I am safe. If you have experienced panic attacks in the past and are worried you’ll have another, plan ahead. For example, write down an affirmation or 2 in advance to say during your moment of need. You can learn more about affirmations here.
4️⃣. Talk to yourself kindly. Start talking to yourself like a loved one would if they were talking to you. Treat yourself like a child you're consoling. Better yet, treat yourself like you’re consoling the 5-year old version of yourself. Would you tell her she’s out of control? Would you pressure her? Of course not. You’d tell her she’s safe, that she’s okay, that she’ll get through it.
5️⃣. Lay down if sitting down isn’t helping and/or get in the fetal position. This position is the position of the fetus in the mother's womb. Reproducing this position during sleep allows us to find the feeling we had in utero, to find this feeling of calmness.
6️⃣. Drink a cold glass of water or, if available, squeeze ice cubes in your hands. Focus on your touch and what you’re feeling. Squeeze as hard as you can! Learn more about grounding techniques using your senses here.
7️⃣. Write your feelings down if you have the ability - grab a notebook, take your phone out & start writing in the Notes app, write yourself an email to read after you've calmed down - whatever you have access to, use!
8️⃣. Reach out to a trusted person. If you’re alone, try calling a trusted person to help you through it. Knowing who this person would be in advance can help if the time ever arises where you might need someone. *See the end of this post for other support resources
9️⃣. Practice mindfulness and grounding techniques. Mindfulness can be practiced any and everywhere, and the best part - it can be free! Start to learn and utilize coping & distraction techniques. These techniques aren’t just helpful when anxious, but also when feeling other extreme emotions such as anger, embarrassment and fear.
1️⃣0️⃣. Go somewhere where you feel safe (if you have the ability to move). If you’re in your kitchen, go into your bedroom or favorite chair in your living room. If you’re at someone’s house, go into their bathroom (or bedroom if you’re comfortable enough with them), or go outside where you can get privacy.
*Note: this is nowhere near a complete list - there are many other strategies that are effective as well
The most important thing to know is that you're safe. Although the attack might cause you to feel like you're having a heart attack or losing control of yourself, know that you are safe, you will overcome this attack, and you will come out stronger.