Panic attacks: a survival guide

Panic attacks are horrible. They make you feel like the world is caving in all around you, and can leave you mentally, physically and emotionally exhausted. I’ve been coping with frequent panic attacks for about two years, and while I haven’t found a cure, I’ve definitely got better at dealing with them. Here’s some of what I’ve learned.

What is a panic attack?

According to the NHS, a panic attack is “a rush of intense anxiety and physical symptoms”. Panic attacks can vary from person to person, but if you’re having one you might:

  • Have a racing heartbeat.
  • Feel unable to breathe (hyperventilation).
  • Sweat a lot.
  • Feel nauseous.
  • Experience chest pain.
  • Feel shaky.

For me, a panic attack makes me feel like I can’t breathe and if it’s a bad one I might start to feel like I could pass out and get very shaky afterwards (teeth chattering and all). However, I’ve also had less intense ones where I ¬†experience really acute anxiety and hyperventilate a bit, but the physical symptoms are less noticeable. The symptoms and the the severity really do vary from person to person and panic attack to panic attack.

Panic attacks often last between 5 and 20 minutes, and the first time you have one you might feel like you’re having a heart attack or that you’re going to faint. However, whilst these attacks are horrible, it’s important to remember that they aren’t dangerous.

Be prepared

If you get panic attacks regularly, there are certain things you can do that will help:

  • Let a few close friends of family members know that you get panic attacks so they know what’s happening and how to help if you have one while you’re together.
  • Talk to your doctor – they can prescribe medication such as beta blockers if you’re getting a lot of panic attacks.
  • Talk to someone – this can be a friend or family member, but if you’re experiencing a lot of anxiety you might want to talk to a counsellor or ask your GP to refer you to a therapist. If you’re a student, many universities offer free counselling – don’t be afraid to make use of it!
  • Work out what situations trigger your panic attacks – for example, do you get really anxious while travelling or before an exam? If you know which situations you find difficult, you can take steps to prepare yourself.

The build-up

It’s not always possible to prevent a panic attack, but if you feel one coming on you can:

  • Try a breathing or mindfulness exercise to keep your breathing under control. E.g. take deep breaths and count to ten, or focus on one thing you can see, hear, smell, touch and taste.
  • Take a beta blocker if you have been prescribed them.
  • Find a quieter place – don’t feel guilty about excusing yourself if you need to step outside.
  • Distraction can help – listen to some music, make some tea, talk to a friend.

Now is not the time to focus on what you are worrying about – you need to focus on staying calm. This is a lot easier said than done, but it’s easy to get caught in a vicious cycle of worry that doesn’t solve anything and only makes you more panicky. Tell yourself that you will focus on proactively solving the problem (if there is one) when you are feeling calmer.

In the moment

If you’re having a panic attack:

  • The most important thing is to remember that this will pass, and that panic attacks are not physically dangerous.
  • To some extent you sort of have ride it out, but it helps to focus on regulating your breathing. Try and count to ten.
  • If you’re in public, don’t feel ashamed – it’s horrible having a panic attack in public, but if anyone judges you for it then that is a reflection of them not you.


This is where self-care is really important:

  • Eat something – your blood sugar is probably really low, and having some food or a snack will help.
  • Drink some water or make a cup of tea.
  • A quick walk can help you to clear your head.
  • Take it easy – watch a bit of TV, listen to some music, do some colouring in (if that’s your thing). You’re probably exhausted so give yourself some time to recover.
  • Talk to a friend or family member and let them know what’s on your mind.

I hope this was helpful; what are your top tips for coping with panic attacks?


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