I Think I Just Had My First Panic Attack! What Do I Do?

As a psychotherapist I know that panic attacks are frightening. People often describe the experience as feeling like they’re having a heart attack. Others experience an overwhelming feeling of impending doom. If you think you’ve experienced your first panic attack, you may be wondering what to do next. First, let’s take a look at the common symptoms of a panic attack, and then discuss some techniques to help overcome an attack.

How to Tell if You’re Having a Panic Attack

How can you tell if you’re having a panic attack? Most people experience one of four things during an attack:

  • An escalating feeling of doom and catastrophe; as if something bad is going to happen right now.
  • Heart racing. Many believe they’re having a heart attack.
  • A feeling of loss of control. Some people feel as if they’ve lost control of themselves and will do something embarrassing in front of other people.
  • Hyperventilating. Some people take such quick, rapid breaths that they begin hyperventilating and feel as if they’re suffocating.

Other common symptoms of a panic attack include:

  • Flushes or chills
  • Terror
  • Sweaty palms
  • Fear of going crazy, dying or losing control
  • Trouble catching your breath
  • Racing or pounding heartbeat
  • Dizziness
  • Chest pains

A panic attack can last for several minutes, and those who experience them claim those few minutes were the most distressing minutes of their lives. In some cases, panic attacks will last even longer or recur.

What to Do If You have a Panic Attack

What should you do if you have a panic attack? Stay calm. Easier said than done, right? Here are some tips:

Practice Deep Breathing

Deep breathing accomplishes two things: it helps prevent you from hyperventilating, and it reduces stress.  Start by inhaling for four seconds. Then, hold your breath for two to three seconds. Take another four seconds to exhale. So, what this does is it provides your body – and your brain – with much-needed oxygen. Counting the seconds during each inhale and exhale also helps distract your mind, diverting your attention away from the attack.

Replace Anxiety Thoughts with Positive Thoughts

If anxiety-producing thoughts are causing the attack, replace those thoughts with positive ones. Each time you find yourself stuck in that vicious cycle of “what happens if?” or “how will I cope if x happens?”, stop your thoughts and replace them with something that brings you happiness.
If you’re experiencing recurring panic attacks, then you may consider seeing a therapist. Cognitive or behavioral therapy can give you the tools to overcome a panic attack when it happens.

Jan Rakoff
Phone: (858) 481-0425

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