What to Do If You're Having a Panic Attack

Pounding heart. Sweating. Nausea. Chest pain. Feeling weak. If you’ve felt these symptoms, chances are you’ve experienced a panic attack.

Panic attacks are frightening, disruptive—and more common than you might think. At least six million Americans have had panic attacks and experts estimate that 28 percent of us will experience a panic attack in our life.

What Is a Panic Attack?

A panic attack is a sudden and repeated bout of fear, typically of certain disaster or losing control. It's a type of anxiety disorder. Panic attacks typically come on quickly and last 10 to 30 minutes. They can occur anytime, even when you're sleeping. Panic attacks generally begin during the late teens or early adulthood.

The good news is that panic attacks are the most treatable form of anxiety disorder. Unfortunately, however, many people who experience panic attacks hesitate to seek treatment due to feelings of shame, anxiety, or humiliation.

In addition to medications, mental health experts find that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a form of psychotherapy, is particularly helpful for treating panic attacks. During CBT, therapists alternate between exposure and response prevention. They help patients to face their fearful situation and then to try to tolerate the anxiety. CBT also helps people change irrational feelings or images by recognizing there may be alternative explanations for their fears.

How to Handle a Panic Attack

If you're experiencing panic attacks regularly, seek help so you can begin treatment as soon as possible. Avoid coffee, alcohol, and smoking, which are stimulants that can worsen your anxiety.

Breathe. Have you ever noticed that when you're anxious or nervous you tend to hold your breath? This doesn't help. Instead, take slow, deep breaths from your belly. Don't breathe faster than normal. Aim for 8 to 16 breaths per minute.

Relax. Relaxation techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation (alternate between tensing and releasing muscles, moving from one set of muscles to the next) can help you regain control. Although it might be hard, try to think positive thoughts and use positive mental imagery. Reassure yourself that you will get through the panic attack.

Snap yourself back to awareness. Some people swear by the rubber-band-on-the-wrist technique. Whenever you begin to feel out of control, snap the rubber band. It brings you back into the moment where you can try to regain control.




National Institute of Mental Health. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. National Institutes of Health. "Panic Disorder: When Fear Overwhelms." Web.

National Institute of Mental Health. Anxiety Disorders. "Panic Disorder." Web.

Medical News Today. "What is a Panic Attack? What Causes Panic Attacks." Web.