By Julie-Ann Sherlock

Many of us have experienced a moment in our life where we have felt a rush of fear or panic. Whether it was for a split second when you couldn’t find your phone or when something awful happened in your life, you may have felt like your world would end. 

Generally, thankfully, this passes; we calm down and get on with our lives. But sometimes, these moments can be more than just fleeting and turn into a panic attack. 

Approximately 13% of people experience a panic attack during their lives. I am one of those unlucky 13. I have had a few, and they are horrendous. 

What Is A Panic Attack?

I get heart palpations, dry mouth, and struggle to breathe. Some people sweat or get chills, a tingling sensation and cramps in their stomach. In extreme cases, some experience chest pain, similar to a heart attack. Scary stuff!

And that is only the physical side.

Emotionally, it feels like the world is ending, and you have absolutely no control over anything. There is a real feeling of fear that everything is falling apart, including you.  

Thankfully, they are rare for most people and only happen during intense stress or are triggered by a traumatic event. Unfortunately, they sometimes come out of nowhere for no apparent reason. 

Many people experience them as a once-off or only a few times in their lives, but some people develop a condition known as panic disorder and have attacks more frequently. 

How Do You Deal With One?

If you or someone else are having a panic attack, here are some ways to deal with them in the short term. But in the long term, it is essential to speak to a doctor and get some therapy or maybe medication to prevent or reduce the severity of future attacks. 

The method I use, and have used to help others, is to remind myself or them that it is a panic attack and that it will pass. I do some deep breathing and focus on something unrelated to how I am feeling

For example, if I was walking in a park, I would touch a tree. I would bring my mind to the tree, telling myself that it was the only thing that was real right now. It was the only thing I needed to concentrate on. The feeling of the bark under my fingers, the colour of the leaves, and its height and strength. I would zone in on the tree, pushing all other thoughts out of my mind while inhaling deeply. 

You can use anything nearby: the chair you are sitting on, the wall you are leaning against, your car keys. Some people even carry an object for this purpose, so when they feel a panic attack coming on, they take out the special stone or coin or whatever and focus on it. 

This type of mindfulness approach really helps me and others to just quieten the inner turmoil. Then as you get your breath more regulated and your heartbeat returns to normal, it becomes easier to think rationally and ground yourself in reality instead of in your head. 

Taking the focus away from whatever triggered the panic allows your body to unwind from the physical aspects, relax your muscles, and find it easier to breathe again. This will make you feel better almost straight away. The adrenaline rush that coursed through your body, scrambling your thoughts and sending them off on wild adventures, was feeding into the panic. 

What Can I Do Next?

When your breathing is under control, and you can feel the waves of panic subsiding, go for a short walk, jog or do some yoga—whatever kind of gentle exercise you enjoy. Exercise releases endorphins to help relax you, rebalance the chemicals firing around your brain, and make you feel happier. 

Try to imagine yourself in your happy place to stop your mind from wandering back to the trigger of your attack. I transport my mind to a sunny beach sunlounger and imagine the waves lapping on the shore. I use this technique to calm myself at the dentist too. 

Some people find smelling some lavender helps to calm their mind; others find it helpful to repeat a mantra or use the 5-4-3-2-1 method. This is where you think about five things you can see, listen for 4 different sounds, touch 3 separate objects, try to identify 2 different smells and think about the taste in your mouth. This brings you back to a more centred, calmer place. 

Having a panic attack is terrifying. But you don’t need to let them ruin or rule your life. Talk to your doctor, take any medication they prescribe and work with a therapist to figure out your triggers and on ways to manage them when they happen. This way, you can regain control and feel calmer in almost any situation.