5 Top Tips for People Coping with Panic Attacks

If you’ve ever experienced a panic attack, you’ll know how overwhelming and frightening they can be.

Commonly described as a sensation of intense fear that can trigger both physical and emotional responses, panic attacks can occur even when there is no danger or immediate threat.

There are a number of strategies that can be used to help you cope with a panic attack, including:

  • Focusing on breathing exercises
  • Using grounding techniques
  • Reassuring yourself
  • Relaxing your muscles
  • Speaking to a friend or family member

This article provides more detail about each of these strategies as well as presenting more information about managing panic attacks and preventing them from occurring in the first place.

What are the symptoms of a panic attack?

A panic attack can be a terrifying experience, with many people believing that they are suffering from a heart attack or other medical problem. The symptoms can begin suddenly and without warning, with an intensity that can overwhelm even the calmest and rational person. [1]

Common symptoms of a panic attack include:

  • Tingling or numb sensation in your fingers, hands and lips
  • An increased heart and breathing rate
  • Excessive perspiration
  • Heart palpitations
  • Difficulty catching your breath
  • Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
  • Experiencing a choking sensation
  • Hyperventilation
  • Nausea
  • Chest pains
  • Needing to use the toilet
  • Tightness of the chest
  • A sense of impending doom or terror
  • Feeling as though you have lost control

In general, most panic attacks will last for between 5-20 minutes, although some symptoms can last for an extended period of time. It is common for one panic attack to trigger another, often extending the experience for up to one hour.

While the above symptoms may feel terrifying, it can be comforting to keep in mind that a panic attack will not cause a heart attack or other physical harm.

How to deal with panic attacks

Contrary to what you may believe, you actually have a lot of control when it comes to dealing with panic attacks. The following strategies can help you to calm down during a panic attack or even prevent one from occurring if you manage to catch the symptoms early.

1. Focus on breathing exercises

During a panic attack you may unconsciously begin to breathe deeper and faster. This is known as hyperventilation and can cause chest pains and feelings of dizziness, further increasing your levels of fear and discomfort.

You can combat this by making an effort to slow your breathing down – focus on taking a deep breath in for three seconds, holding it for two seconds and then slowly letting it out for another three seconds. This helps to regulate your oxygen levels, particularly if you make sure to breathe right down to your stomach.

2. Use grounding techniques

Mindfulness can be an extremely useful mental tool, capable of stopping panic attacks in their tracks. There is a wide range of mindfulness techniques that can be used when you begin to feel the symptoms of a panic attack, with many of the most effective methods taught by professional therapists.

Sit down in a comfortable position and take some deep breaths before beginning the following exercise:

  • Note five things that you can see
  • Note four things that you can touch
  • Note three things that you can hear
  • Note two things that you can smell
  • Note one thing that you can taste

This 5-4-3-2-1 exercise can be performed almost anywhere without drawing attention to yourself, including a crowded train or a busy shopping mall. [2] It can help to ground you and bring you back to the present moment, as well as being a helpful distraction when you begin to feel anxious and panicked.

3. Reassure yourself

Repeating comforting and reassuring statements to yourself can help to calm your mind and body, particularly if you are alone during a panic attack.

Some of these statements may include:

  • I am experiencing a panic attack. It feels scary but it will not cause physical harm.
  • This sensation is temporary and will soon pass.
  • I don’t need to run away. I am safe.
  • If I calm down, the symptoms will stop.
  • I can breathe. There is nothing stopping me from breathing.
  • I have never experienced a heart attack. This sensation is simply caused by high levels of anxiety.

4. Relax your muscles

Muscle relaxation techniques are another form of mindfulness, allowing your brain to focus on a specific exercise and get rid of unconscious tension within your body.

Begin with your toes, tensing them and then slowly relaxing them. Do the same with your feet, your ankles and your calves as you slowly move up your body until your reach the top of your head. You will usually find that you are holding a large amount of tension in your hands, your shoulders, your forehead and even your stomach, so ensure that you focus on these sections during the exercise.

It may be difficult to focus on this technique during a panic attack if you have never tried it before, so it is recommended that you regularly practice this exercise a few times a week.

5. Speak to a friend or family member

When you are in the middle of a panic attack, your first instinct may be to get as far away from other people as possible. However, challenging yourself to speak to a friend or family member can help to alleviate many of your fears and give you something to focus on as you begin to calm down.

As many panic attacks occur for little to no reason, your friend or family member will be able to reassure you that there is no imminent threat or cause for concern. They can walk you through some simple breathing techniques or grounding exercises, and the knowledge that you are not alone in this situation may help to soothe your anxiety and panic.

How to prevent a panic attack

While there is currently no fail-safe way to prevent a panic attack, there are a number of lifestyle changes that have been proven to reduce the frequency and severity of these episodes while also decreasing symptoms of general anxiety.

Simple ways to reduce and prevent panic attacks include:

  • Ensuring that you get enough sleep – at least 7-8 hours each night
  • Consuming a healthy, balanced diet and drink an adequate amount of water
  • Avoiding caffeine and nicotine, as these substances can increase feelings of anxiety in certain people
  • Cutting down on your alcohol consumption or stopping drinking entirely
  • Staying away from mind-altering substances such as cannabis and other illegal drugs
  • Exercising regularly, as this can relieve feelings of stress and help you to sleep better
  • Removing as much stress from your life as possible, such as finding a less-demanding job or stepping back from unhealthy relationships

Many people find that attending regular therapy sessions with an experienced counsellor is the most effective way to reduce and prevent future panic attacks. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) allows you to identify the most common triggers that may cause you to panic and arms you with tips and strategies to change your mindset and reactions to certain events.

Do I have a panic disorder?

It’s normal to feel anxious, stressed or panicked in certain situations, and many people will experience one or two panic attacks during their lifetime. However, someone with a panic disorder will experience frequent panic attacks and feelings of extreme anxiety on a regular basis. In many cases, these reactions will not reflect the actual experience and the panic attacks may occur for seemingly no reason. [3]

Panic disorder can result in the sufferer beginning to avoid certain situations or events that they fear may trigger a panic attack. It can have an extremely debilitating effect on your life, so it’s important to seek help if you are experiencing multiple panic attacks and severe anxiety.

One study found that around 1.70% of the UK population has been diagnosed with a panic disorder, but this figure is likely to be higher due to the prevalence of sufferers who remain undiagnosed. [4]

If you believe that you may be suffering from a panic disorder, get in touch with your GP. They will ask you to describe your symptoms and will either make a formal diagnosis or refer you to a mental health team who will be able to determine your condition. They may also conduct a physical examination in order to rule out any potential underlying disorders.


[1] https://www.nhsinform.scot/healthy-living/mental-wellbeing/anxiety-and-panic/are-you-having-panic-attacks

[2] https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/behavioral-health-partners/bhp-blog/april-2018/5-4-3-2-1-coping-technique-for-anxiety.aspx

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1444835/

[4] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20813508/