When you think of panic attack symptoms, you might think of something you’ve seen on television: someone clutching their chest, fighting to catch their breath and turning into an anxious mess. Film and TV have always shown characters as “nervous wrecks” and in doing so, morphed the perception of panic attacks into something comical rather than something that should be taken seriously. But what is a panic attack, really?
What Does a Panic Attack Feel Like?
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, panic attacks are “a sudden wave of fear or discomfort or a sense of losing control even when there is no clear danger or trigger.”
During a panic attack, you may get a feeling of being out of control or a fear of death or impending doom. Physical symptoms include chest or stomach pain, tingly or numb hands, weakness or dizziness, difficulty breathing, chills, pounding or racing heart, trembling and sweating.
“When people experience intense stress, it activates the sympathetic nervous system, a network of nerves that trigger what psychologists call the “fight or flight” response to perceived danger,” said Dani Blum in a 2022 article for The New York Times. “The body releases chemicals like epinephrine, also known as adrenaline, and norepinephrine, which cause the heart to go into overdrive, pupils to swell and our skin to release sweat.”
So How Do You Stop a Panic Attack?
Although there is no cure-all for panic attacks, there are ways to help prevent one when signs of anxiety arise or to mediate the severity of the panic attack symptoms.
Research has shown that slow, intentional breathing reduces symptoms of anxiety. The best part is that there are many ways to practice breathwork and no wrong way of doing it. If you’re new to breathwork, try the tried and true Box Breathing technique. First, breathe in while slowly counting to four. Then, after holding your breath for four seconds, slowly exhale from your mouth for another four seconds. Hold for four seconds before inhaling again. Repeat this pattern of breathing until you feel centered.
Another breathing technique is the Soldier’s technique, which can be helpful when you’re trying to unwind after a stressful day.
2. Play the 5,4,3,2,1 Game
When panic attack symptoms arise, we tend to think about the future and imagine negative scenarios that can worsen the panic attack. By using a grounding technique, you may be able to tune into the present and slow down your racing thoughts. One fantastic method for dropping into the present is the 5,4,3,2,1 game. Here’s how it works:
- Name five things you can see around you right now and describe them.
- Name four things you can feel with your body.
- Name three things you can hear right now.
- Name two things you smell.
- Name one thing you like about yourself.
Like box breathing, you can repeat this game until you feel calmer and more grounded.
3. Try the Ice Trick
If you’re on TikTok, you may have already seen this viral panic attack hack. While some viral tips on social media tend to be unresearched, this method has been scientifically proven to decrease anxiety and calm you down when experiencing panic attack symptoms. Simply take an ice cube and run it up and down your arms. Then, take a moment to notice the sensation of the ice on your skin. Alternatively, eating ice can achieve the same result as well as dunking your face in ice water. If you want to take this ice trick to the next level, try cold plunging for a daily dose of relaxation. According to the Mental Health Center of America, cold exposure can help lessen symptoms of depression and anxiety by producing feelings of calm, happiness and well-being. Here’s everything you need to know to start cold plunging.
4. Stretch It Out
In 2017, researchers found that a single session of hatha yoga improved stress reactivity and recovery after a math task was given to their test subjects. An easy pose to try is the standing forward bend: while standing with your feet about hip-width apart, bend at the hips and fold forward. Don’t forget to slightly bend your knees and drop your hands to the floor, while tucking your chin to your chest. Hold this pose for up to 60 seconds and feel the tension melt away from your lower back and hips.
Another pose that may help ease stress is the child’s pose. While kneeling on a comfortable surface, sink back onto your heels and fold forward. Walk your hands out in front of you and rest your forehead on the floor. You can hold this pose for up to 5 minutes while resting your arms alongside your body or keeping them extended forward.
Make the most of your stretch session by taking time to observe your breathing and experience the deepness of each pose.
Now when you start to experience panic attack symptoms, just take a beat to breathe and try one of these hacks.
Madonna Diaz-Refugia is a writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles. Their work has been featured on Reductress, WFMU and Elite Daily. Follow them on Twitter.
Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash.
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