The first time I had a panic attack the world was already spinning. I was in the middle of the Jackson red line subway platform in Chicago and the trains were coming and going, coming and going and I was staying.
I sat heavily on a bench, heavy breathing for about half an hour. I'd already had a stressful day of work and class and felt my upcoming tasks piling inside my head and spilling into my heart. One little thing, dropping my Egg McMuffin on the steps as I ran to catch the Howard-bound train, set off my first attack.
I'd comforted friends for years through panic attacks, I thought I knew how to help myself. Turns out I had been giving them the completely wrong advice for years.
Calm down. You're overreacting. I'm going to leave you alone for a minute. You're freaking me out. Just tell me what's going on. Don't worry about it.
I felt my chest tightening, heart beating, forehead sweating, and my body shaking. My mind was racing a mile a minute, thoughts were scattered and I felt like I was losing control. But on the outside I looked fine because I was paralyzed.
I took deep breaths, took sips of water and called my mother. I would find myself doing this multiple times over the course of my winter quarter of my second year in college quite frequently, until I learned to anticipate upcoming attacks and how to diffuse them quickly when they did happen regardless.
These methods were specifically helped me but they might be helpful to others as well:
- Drink water from a water bottle. It helps regulate and re-stabilize your breathing. It also forces you to hold air in while you drink, keeping you from heaving during an attack.
- Take deep breaths from the diaphragm, holding them for three seconds and exhaling for another three seconds. Doing this repeatedly helps you focus on something other than your scattering thoughts.
- Take time to relax and sleep if you can. Do things that relax you like drinking tea, cleaning, playing a game, watching your favorite show or coloring.
- Call someone who loves you and knows you have panic attacks. If it's hard for you to talk come up with a code word to say to that person so they know that you need their help. That way you don't have to go into lots of detail about something you might not be ready to talk about.
- Create a calming bottle to focus on something beautiful and keep your mind at ease while thoughts are racing.
If you're on the other end trying to help someone deal with a panic attack these tips will help:
- Remain calm
- If the person normally takes anxiety medicine, offer it
- Move the person to a quiet place
- Converse with the person in short and simple sentences
- Avoid anything hectic or surprising
- Guide the person through a simple physical task such as raising both arms overhead
- Invite the person to breathe slowly with you in order to slow breathing
Panic attacks are a normal result of high anxiety, and roughly 3 million people in the U.S. suffer from them.
You're not alone. You can get through this. I am proud of you. What you are feeling is scary but not dangerous.
Stay in the present, and just breathe.
If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of anxiety, please contact your doctor.