The first time I had a panic attack, I thought I was dying. I’d gone to see a movie with some friends one Thanksgiving night in high school, and I ran into an ex I’d had a messy breakup with and thought I’d never have to see again.
Initially, when I saw him, my heart sped up, but things went quickly back to normal. Twenty minutes into the movie, however, my heart started racing and wouldn’t slow down. I felt like I was fighting to catch my breath. I thought I was having a reaction to the perfume my friend was wearing, and I quickly told my friends I wasn’t feeling well and left.
When I got home, I didn’t feel any better. I told my family I wasn’t feeling well, took a shower, then went to lay down in bed, totally resigned to the fact that I thought I was having a heart attack or some other fatal problem.
After weeks of missed school and doctor visits where I was told I was in great health, I learned that anxiety was the root of my symptoms, and what I was feeling was what’s commonly called a panic or anxiety attack.
Panic attacks look different for everyone. For me, my heart speeds up, I feel like I have a hard time catching my breath, and my stomach ties itself in knots. For other people I know, it’s an overwhelming sense of general dread or fear. Some people tremble, vomit, feel claustrophobic or just get quiet and withdrawn. Anxiety can be triggered by specific things or events, or just suddenly come crashing in a wave with no reason at all.
No two panic attacks are exactly the same, and there isn’t one particular thing you should do if you’re having a panic attack. There’s no guaranteed cure that will make you instantly feel better, and it can be a process of trial and error to find a method of soothing yourself that works for you.
I do a few things when I have panic attacks. First, I tell myself that I’m having a panic attack. This is important for me, because a lot of my anxiety is health-related, and it can be really scary when your body starts feeling out of whack. Recognizing that you know what’s causing you to feel this way can do wonders for helping you feel better.
Next, I focus on my breathing. Doing deep breathing exercises helps calm my body and reassure my mind that I’m not actually dying. An easy exercise is called four square breathing. You breathe in for four counts, hold it for four counts, breathe out for four counts and hold it for four counts, then repeat until you feel more calm.
If there’s something specific I’m worrying about, I try to think rationally about it and remind myself that things really aren’t as bad as they may seem. One thing I get nervous about is flying, and when I’m taking a big trip somewhere, I remind myself that, statistically, flying is much safer than driving and the likelihood of anything bad happening is minuscule.
Other great coping mechanisms are finding a quiet place to sit and relax, doing yoga, meditating, talking to a friend or exercising. Putting yourself in an environment where you feel comfortable or where you have the support of people you care about can be a huge help when recovering from a panic attack.
Talking to a counselor or getting a prescription for anti-anxiety medication can be a huge help, especially if you suffer from frequent or severe panic attacks that make it hard for you to live normally. There’s a negative social stigma around getting therapy or taking medication for your mental health, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with getting the help you need to live your best life.