Teen Breathe

How to cope with a panic attack

Getting to know the signs and causes of panic attacks can help make them more manageable.
WORDS: Anne Guillot
ILLUSTRATION: Maggie Stephenson

What do panic attacks feel like?

Imagine you’re out with friends and they decide to go to a funfair. You can’t explain why, but you just don’t feel like going. A sense of unease increases as you approach the crowd. Once there, the noise and lights become overwhelming, you begin to sweat and feel sick. You start shaking and feel a desperate urge to run away.

This is one example of how a panic attack might feel. Other reactions include chest pains, breathlessness, a racing heart, pins and needles and an intense fear that something bad might happen. Experiencing these symptoms is more common than you might think, but there are ways to ease the panic.

What causes panic attacks?

Sometimes, when the body senses you’re afraid, rather than wait to find out whether there’s a real danger that it needs to react to, it sets off the fight-or-flight response. This happens because anxiety is a primitive and essential emotion. When prehistoric humans were tackling or escaping from a mammoth, for example, it quickly prepared the body to defend itself – with the heart beating faster to pump blood to the muscles, providing energy to run away or fight off danger.

Nowadays, though, even without this kind of threat to life, the fear response can be so strong that it sets off a panic attack. This can happen when you’re faced with a worrying situation, such as performing in front of others, being away from home or sitting an exam.

Sometimes, panic attacks develop following distressing events such as family break-ups or bereavements, or incidents like house fires or car accidents. They can also come out of the blue. They’re frightening and can make you nervous about being in situations that might trigger one. 

If this is the case for you, talk to your GP or a trusted adult. There are lots of coping techniques to try, as well as experts who can help you overcome your fears.

Toolkit for calm

Panic attacks are common but there’s lots you can do to overcome one – no matter how out of control it feels. Here are six ways to make them more manageable

1. Stay in the moment

    Focus on your senses to help ground yourself. Look around and notice what you can see – is there a relaxing view you can focus on? What can you hear? Is there something soft and comforting that you can touch?

    2. Breathe easy

    You might notice that you breathe faster when you’re anxious. This can make you dizzy and lightheaded and increase feelings of anxiety. Try visualising a box and imagining yourself breathing in for a count of four as you follow one of the sides up the box, then holding for four as you move along the top, then exhaling for four as you move down the other side and holding for four as you move along the bottom (see issue 41 for more breathing exercises).

    3. Stamp on the spot

    Sounds weird, but it works (see issue 43 for more details). Yoga teacher Helen Noakes suggests imitating the primal movements that animals use when they experience a stress response. ‘The stress hormone is able to dissolve through shaking or stamping,’ she says. ‘Stamping gets you in contact with the earth, helping you to root your body and quieten your mind.’

    4. Cool off

    Lowering your body temperature can be a speedy way to signal to your brain that there’s nothing to be worried about. Try nipping to the bathroom and splashing cold water on your face or taking a moment to stand in the fresh air. Even holding a cold cloth on your face for 30 seconds can do the trick.

    5. Tap it out

    Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) is known as ‘acupuncture without needles’ because it involves tapping the fingers on the same points of the body as those used in ancient Chinese medicine to relieve anxiety and stress (see issue 45 for a guide). Tapping on each of these points in turn while saying out loud the sensations that are troubling you might help to calm your nerves.

    6. Face your fears

    If panic attacks are triggered by a specific situation, you may be able to reduce the chances of one occurring by getting used to that environment with a supportive companion. For example, if getting on a crowded bus causes a panic reaction (this is a common source of anxiety), try going with a friend and staying on for just one stop. Next time, slightly increase how long you remain on board. Go at a pace you feel comfortable with and add time gradually.