Panic attacks affect millions of people; even folks who don’t struggle with a mental health condition can experience one. The symptoms can include sweating, tingling of the hands, rapid heartbeat, shaking, a feeling of impending doom and a fear of dying.
Of course, no one wants to endure this. This is why Jennifer Anders, a Colorado-based psychologist who runs The.Anxiety.Doc Instagram account, posted a reel showing her followers a method to stop a panic attack. The video, which was posted last summer, garnered 2.7 million views and tens of thousands of likes ― and it’s still shared across the platform today.
Anders refers to the mental health tip as the “lemon panic attack hack,” and it’s exactly what it sounds like. In the video, she tells viewers to cut a lemon into wedges and stick it in their mouth the next time they feel a panic attack coming on.
“The way the lemon panic attack hack works is that it brings awareness into the body and into the present moment, so it’s a grounding tool,” Anders told HuffPost.
Think about it: When you suck on a lemon, your mouth immediately starts to pucker and you notice the sour sensation.
“It takes your awareness away from the negative looping thoughts, into the present moment and helps connect you with your surroundings, which is the lemon,” Anders stated.
You may even find yourself taking a deep breath after tasting the sour flavor.
“And really what it does is it helps to detach your mind from your thoughts and bring awareness into the physical body,” Anders said. “And that’s what we try to do ... whenever we’re in a panic attack.”
If you don’t have lemons on hand, the method also works with sour candy like Warheads, she added.
Victoria Riordan, a therapist with Thriveworks in Columbus, Ohio, who also shares mental health advice on social media, said that while she hadn’t heard of using a lemon specifically, she has heard about warding off panic attacks with other foods, like chocolate. Riordan said it makes sense based on classic panic attack treatment.
“When you have a panic attack, your sympathetic nervous system is in overdrive,” she said.
“It’s not going to help you with your anxiety overall, but the way it can help with that is to just train your brain and your body to come back to the present moment.”
Our sympathetic nervous system is a network of nerves that help activate us so we can quickly react to a stressful situation. “Your sympathetic nervous system is what’s triggered when you have a fight, flight, freeze response, and it is meant to get you away from danger,” Riordan said.
Any sensory intervention ― like using taste or smell ― that can pull you out of the fight, flight or freeze response is going to be helpful. “Sensory pieces are great for that because our brains use sensory to determine whether or not we’re in danger in the first place,” Riordan stated.
But when you’re having a panic attack, it’s hard for your body to differentiate between what’s actually dangerous and what’s safe. You could be in a perfectly safe environment, but your brain and body interpret your surroundings as something threatening.
This is where a sensory tool, like biting on a lemon, comes in. This method is also called a grounding technique. According to Anders, they capture your physical and mental attention to bring your mind back to the present moment — similar to mindfulness.
Anders stressed that this is not true for someone who is having a panic attack because of an intense experience.
“Anxiety in response to something horrific and tragic is a normal response, and actually, I would say warranted,” Anders said.
“In some ways [it’s] helpful to have that surge of adrenaline because it’s part of the fight or flight response, it gets you going, it gets you taking action, but what we don’t like is when your body is producing that physiological experience in the absence of a stressor,” she explained.
Beyond this hack, it’s important to seek out mental health support.
Riordan stressed that it’s important to take care of your health so you can live your life without limitations. You can’t ― nor should you have to ― go through life eating lemons or sour candy day after day to control your panic attacks.
“Seek treatment, be able to navigate that so that your fear of panic attacks doesn’t make your panic worse,” Riordan said.
Part of this work includes educating yourself on how you can best look after your mental health before it gets to a tipping point, Anders said.
“The golden ticket really is to pair these sorts of things with psychoeducation, and psychoeducation is just learning how to bring awareness to how your thoughts and your feelings and your behaviors are all interconnected,” Anders explained. “Learning does not mean just [knowing] a panic attack hack, but learning how to regulate your mind and your body.”
“The golden ticket really is to pair these sorts of things with psychoeducation, and psychoeducation is just learning how to bring awareness to how your thoughts and your feelings and your behaviors are all interconnected.”
And while having tools to help you control your panic attacks is important, this lemon hack won’t help you get to the root cause of the issue, which is a necessary part of your mental health journey, Anders added.
“When you’re dealing with these sorts of things, [what’s important is] getting to the root cause and understanding that avoidance is not the right way to deal with anxiety. A lot of people, when they experience a panic attack, when they experience anxiety, their natural inclination is to want to avoid the trigger, which makes sense,” Anders said. But it actually makes the situation harder because it contributes to a mental block in your mind; avoidance only compounds what’s stressing you out.
Additionally, while this lemon hack can help decrease anxiety in the moment, Anders said it likely won’t remain effective for the entire day — you may find yourself feeling anxious again 10 minutes later.
“It’s not going to help you with your anxiety overall, but the way it can help with that is to just train your brain and your body to come back to the present moment rather than being out there looping in thoughts,” Anders noted.
That’s why it’s vital to look for additional support from a therapist in conjunction with using tools like the lemon hack to manage your anxiety. You deserve to feel safe and calm all day, every day ― not just in one moment.