Experiencing a panic attack for the first time can be completely terrifying.
A sudden rush of adrenaline, coupled with debilitating symptoms, can leave the sufferer feeling scared, disorientated and subsequently exhausted. In the words of Nadia Hussain, who has spoken openly about her own “crippling” anxiety, “it feels like you’re going to die. Your airways close up. Your head spins. You collapse. It’s so scary”.
The NHS cites panic as the most severe form of anxiety, and can “create a cycle of living […] in fear of fear”. If you’re prone to panic attacks, you’re not alone. 13.2% of people will experience a panic attack in their lifetime according to the Mental Health Foundation.
As a society, we’re talking about mental health more than ever before, with celebrities championing conversation around panic disorder. Nadiya Hussain’s recent documentary, Nadiya: Anxiety and Me, documents the TV chef’s quest to find treatment, while journalist Bella Mackie’s bestselling memoir, Jog On, highlights how exercise can be a lifeline for those suffering with anxiety and panic attacks, which were, for Bella, “physically brutal”.
When the moment strikes, it’s easy to think, in the words of Bella Mackie, “I can’t possibly get through this”. So how do you?
W&H spoke to three women who have learned to manage their attacks about how to cope when they feel the panic rising.
How to stop a panic attack: three women share their strategies
While experiencing a panic attack can be an unsettling experience, there are coping mechanisms that can help prevent the attack from escalating.
Jane Sorrell, life and wellness coach at janebliss.co.uk, first started experiencing panic attacks 15 years ago
“I remember during the first attack there an extreme awareness of my heart. All of a sudden, I couldn’t breathe and I was convinced I was having a heart attack. I felt overwhelmed and couldn’t stabilise. It was horrific.
“I only really learned how to stop panic attacks when I delved into why my anxiety was there in the first place. If you want to deal with the root of a panic attack, accept that it’s often down to something else going on in your life; grief, or stress, perhaps. Reach out to someone – whether that’s a loved one, close friend, your GP or a professional – as it’s so important to talk.
“An attack can bring back uncomfortable and familiar memories of previous panic attacks. When you feel the memory creeping back up, let it wash you until you feel safe, repeating ‘I am safe, I am fine’. Overcoming a panic attack involves a lot of positive self-talk; a strong mental attitude is key.
“At this moment, breathing is so important. Many people get it wrong when it comes to breathing to calm the system down. The exhale needs to be longer than the inhale by one count to engage the relaxation response. An easy technique to remember is 3-4-5; breathe in for 3, hold for 4, then breathe out for 5.
“Another technique that will work quickly is a technique called EFT, which involves tapping on meridian points in order to relax the body. EFT points include the collar bone, under the nose, under the eye, the side of the eye and the chin.”
TV presenter and psychology expert Anna Williamson is championing an open discussion on mental health, after suffering with panic attacks from a young age
“I actually first experienced a panic attack at the age of eight years old. But I only know this because when I subsequently had panic attacks in my adulthood and was then diagnosed with panic disorder and generalised anxiety disorder in my 20s. It was during regression hypnotherapy I discovered the learned feeling went back to when I was eight and got trapped in a swimming pool. My panic attacks in my adult hood started when I was 25 and fronting a kids TV show for ITV, it was a terrifying time as I didn’t know what was wrong with me and what I was experiencing.
“There is only so long someone can cope with that intense adrenaline and fear coursing around their body. As is common with mental health issues, I started to experience other side-effects such as insomnia and loss of appetite. In the end I had a breakdown at work and willingly went to see my doctor for help.
“If you feel a panic attack coming on, get yourself in a safe place, ideally sitting down and breathe in for five seconds through your nose and out for five seconds for your mouth. Tell someone what you are experiencing so they can help you if need be. Let the attack pass, which it will, and make sure you just take the rest of the day easy as it can be exhausting.
“I am a big fan of talking therapies, but also medication where appropriate as well. I believe that medication should always be supported with a therapy of some kind to get to the root cause of the issue – and to learn coping strategies and techniques. A combination of cognitive behavioural therapy, neuro-linguistic programming, hypnosis and mindfulness is what I find to be really effective. Also learning about who you are, what your triggers are, and what you need to do to help keep yourself well is key. General relaxation techniques can be a day-to-day game changer.”
Chloe Brotheridge suffered panic attacks in her teens and has written two books, The Anxiety Solution and Brave New Girl, providing practical solutions for mental health issues
“I had my first panic attack at 15. I thought I was dying and begged my friend to take me to hospital. At a later date, I had a panic attack during a presentation, where I felt as though I’d come out of my body and was watching myself from the ceiling.
“My main piece of advice would be to remind yourself that although panic attacks are scary, they are not dangerous; it’s just adrenaline and it can’t hurt you. Try and float the panic attack rather than fighting against it. The more you resist a panic attack, the more panicked you become. I use a technique called grounding. It’s where you notice what you see around you, feel, smell and hear. This grounds you and brings you back to your body.
“Worry and anxiety can be exhausting. I set up my website Calmer You to try and help people suffering with anxiety and panic attacks find solutions that work and overcome these issues.”
What is a panic attack?
A panic attack is a sudden feeling of intense fear or discomfort that reaches a peak within a short space of time, accompanied by physical symptoms such as dizziness, shaking, nausea and breathlessness.
In severe cases, the sufferer may believe he or she will collapse, or is about to die. Panic attacks can last anything from a few minutes to an hour.
What are the common panic attack symptoms?
The NHS cites that panic attack symptoms can include, but aren’t limited to:
- a racing heartbeat
- chest pain
- shortness of breath
- shaky limbs
- a choking sensation
- pins and needles
- a dry mouth
- feelings of dread or fear of dying
- a choking sensation
- a churning stomach
- tingling sensations
How to prevent panic attacks happening in the future
There are certain lifestyle changes you can make in order to lessen your chances of experiencing a panic attack.
“You need to work out what particular stress you might be under that could make your symptoms worse,” explains Professor Salkovskis, Programme Director for the Doctorate in Clinical Psychology (DClinPsy) at the Oxford Institute for Clinical Psychology, on the NHS website.
NHS guidelines state that these lifestyle habits can help prevent future panic attacks from recurring by reducing stress levels:
- breathing exercises every day
- regular exercise, particularly aerobic exercise
- regular meals to stabilise blood sugar levels
- avoid caffeine, alcohol and smoking
Medical treatment for panic attacks
NHS guidelines suggest cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) as way to ease panic attacks, panic disorder and anxiety. You can refer yourself directly to a psychological therapist, without seeing your GP. Alternatively, your GP can refer you.
Several types of medication have been shown to be effective in managing symptoms of panic attacks, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs). Always consult a doctor if considering medication and be mindful of potential side effects.