Anxiety Girl: Life with the World's Worst Superpower

Surviving A Panic Attack

For many of us, anxiety is an everyday aspect of life. We can be walking down the street, having a perfectly fine day, but all of a sudden, everything will unravel. Maybe it’s stress about school or work, or maybe it’s nerves about an upcoming party or interview. Or, if you’re anything like me, maybe it’s anxiety over absolutely nothing. Anxiety can be unavoidable, but there’s no reason any of us should let it take over our lives.

I was diagnosed with Social Anxiety Disorder and mild Obsessive Compulsive Disorder when I was 14 years old. Fortunately, I’ve learned ways to deal with these issues. Through therapy and medication, I’ve reached a point where I’m dealing with anxiety and OCD, but they don’t control my life. I know how lucky I am, and I love being able to share my experiences in hopes of helping someone else. Even if I can’t help someone, at least I can let them know they’re not alone, and, honestly, isn’t that what we all need to know?

Today I want to talk about something that we all experience: Panic attacks. Even if you don’t have anxiety or OCD, you’ve probably experienced some sort of panic attack. I had my first major panic attack a few months before I was officially diagnosed with Social Anxiety Disorder.

I was at a friend’s thirteenth birthday party at a country club a half hour away from my house. At first, I was having a lot of fun! I danced with my best friends and posed for pictures with the Polaroid cameras that were provided. But after my friend blew out her candles and I ate my piece of cake, my stomach started to cramp. (Side note: I had undiagnosed Celiac Disease at the time, and that contributed to my anxiety. I just didn’t know that until a few years later.) Along with the stomach cramps, my mouth dried up as I tried to swallow saliva that wasn’t there. I ran over to the drink stand for a glass of water before I sat down and tried to relax. But people kept trying to make me dance, and I was starting to panic. My chest tightened, and my breaths became quick and shallow. My face felt like it was on fire. As it got harder to breathe, my stomach started to hurt so much that I wanted to cry, but I refused to let anyone know that I was struggling. Just act normal, I told myself. An hour or so later, the party ended, and once I walked into my house, I stopped panicking.

That was the first time I had a full blown panic attack, and it was certainly not the last. For months, I let panic attacks get the better of me, and, frankly, it sucked. Once I started therapy, my panic attacks became less frequent, but I know they’ll never disappear. I’m only human! Of course panic attacks will be a part of my life, but I don’t have to let them control my life. In fact, no one should let a panic attack control them.

Below are my tips and tricks for handling a panic attack. Most of these come from one of my old therapists, but some of them are my own tricks that I find helpful. Please note, I am not a licensed therapist. I speak solely from experience.

  1. 5-7-8 Breathing. This is the trick I find most helpful. My favorite therapist taught me this years ago, and it’s still my go-to technique whenever I feel nervous. It’s a simple deep-breathing exercise. Inhale for five seconds, hold your breath for seven seconds, then exhale for eight seconds. The number of seconds doesn’t actually matter as long as you are focused on breathing and counting. This is an easy one to do in a crowd because no one will notice what you’re doing. They’ll just think you’re breathing, and there’s nothing weird about that.
  2. Visualization. This is another trick from my favorite therapist. Close your eyes and picture your favorite place. I like to picture the beach. Now what does it feel like there? “I feel the sun hitting my face and the sand between my toes.” And what does it sound like? “I hear waves and seagulls.” How do you feel there? “I feel relaxed and happy.” Keep your eyes closed and continue asking yourself questions about the place until you start to calm down. Unlike 5-7-8 Breathing, this is not as easy to pull off in public because it’s very dangerous to go around with your eyes closed.
  3. Muscle Focus. Once again, this is a trick from my favorite therapist. This one is much more time consuming than the others, but it’s also one of the most helpful. What you’ll do is take 10-30 seconds tensing each muscle in your body, one at a time. (You can tense them for longer if you have time to spare!) Start with your toes. Bunch them up for 10-30 seconds, then let them go. Then move on to your feet, calves, knees, thighs, butt, stomach, chest, shoulders, wrists, fingers, neck, jaw, lips, eyes and any other muscle you can tense. Continue focusing on your breathing the whole time! When you’re done, you should feel like you just had a massage. Your entire body will feel relaxed, and soon you’ll start to feel calm. Obviously, this is a tough one to pull off in public.
  4. Be Creative. This is one of those tricks I find helpful but no therapist ever taught me. All you have to do is get a pen and paper, then do whatever you want. Draw, write, doodle, scribble, stab the paper, whatever! Write about how you’re feeling, or draw a picture of a pony. There’s no wrong way to do this one. Creativity is a great way to de-stress. Knitting, coloring books, painting or playing an instrument can also help, but they’re not as easily accessible creative outlets.
  5. Let It Out. Cry, scream, kick, laugh. Whatever is boiling inside of you, release it. I love crying when I feel panicked. Ten good minutes of crying, and I will instantly feel better. Panic attacks can stem from so many different emotions, and instead of holding those in, react! You might want to avoid doing this in public because causing a scene can be embarrassing, but you do you! You’re having a panic attack. Don’t make it worse by holding back.

These are my top five tricks for handling a panic attack. They won’t work for everyone, and there are obviously many more things to try! Share your best tips in the comments! And remember: Panic attacks aren’t just for people with anxiety disorders. They can happen to anyone, and, while usually inconvenient, they’re perfectly normal.

  • Curry Flora

    I was finally diagnosed with PTSD after deployment.. I started having horrible panic/anxiety. Of course I didn’t know what it was I thought I was ill all the time. It got so bad that in two weeks my pulse didn’t go below 100, I didn’t sleep but a few hours here and there, and lost twenty pounds. After getting help, I was able to learn the coping skills. I was told it was the 4-7-8, but I do that a couple times a day and it helps so much when I feel something come on.

    • Sarah Williams

      I have never heard of 4-7-8. I’m gonna read about that, as mindful breathing helps me too. Glad you have found something that helps you out!

    • Chelsey Falco

      Thanks for reading! I might have been talking about 4-7-8 breathing! I am so bad with numbers, my therapist gave up on getting me to remember the actual number of seconds for the breathing exercise. But I’m glad it’s getting better for you. Practicing the deep breathing a couple times a day is what made things easier for me.

  • Joleen Benson

    I started having panic attacks at the age of 27. It can be so hopeless, but there is hope. I agree with all the tricks, but wanted to comment on the creativity one. There are painting studios that teach very basic painting classes. They provide all the paint, music, and supplies (Ours is called Artisan Alley in Casper, WY, but they started in big cities and are popping up everywhere!). I HIGHLY recommend ANYONE trying them. I took my stepmom, who also suffers from anxiety, and had never painted. She was scared to death, but at the end she loved it and said she felt so relaxed! Now she wants to start painting. I started and now I have a studio in my spare bedroom. It’s not about being good at it, it’s about tapping into a different place in your brain. There is a lot of peace there, and something about releasing from that part of the brain is my therapy.

    • Chelsey Falco

      Thanks for reading! That class sounds awesome! I’ll have to look it up. I’m terrible at art, but I always wanted to paint.

  • Britney Stewart

    I’ve started participating in a research study looking at mindful meditation for people with social anxieties (not necessarily diagnosed). It’s a lot about being aware of what’s going on in your body when you’re anxious, being mindful of what you eat, doing yoga, breathing exercises and meditations. The meditation thing seems to work for me, and I love yoga, so that’s good.
    I did just have a mini-anxiety attack/ feeling overwhelmed like 2 hours ago and tried the breathing things, but they didn’t really work. I then called my boyfriend, who talked me down a bit. Just talking about it sometimes and having someone who understands what’s happening helps.
    Thanks for the tips! I’ll try them next time!

    • Sarah Williams

      Wow, your boyfriend must be really great. When I’m having a panic attack related to Social Anxiety….I need to go to a quiet dark room and just be alone for 5-10 mins so I can get myself to a better place. Talking to someone is the last thing I want to do. lol. Glad you have him for support!

    • Chelsey Falco

      Thanks for reading! It’s so great that you have someone who can talk you down when the anxiety is bad. I forgot to include that in this article, but having a friend/family member/significant other to talk to can be really helpful for some people. When I was younger, I actually talked to my dog when I was anxious, and even that was helpful.

  • Rachel Koury

    I’ve been struggling with panic attacks since I was 13. I have been diagnosed with severe panic disorder and major depression disorder. With the help of therapy and my own tools, I can proudly say that I am 2+ years panic attack free. I still struggle with anxiety every day. But it doesn’t control me like it used to. For example, my panic attacks were so frequent and severe that I had to drop out of high school and get my GED online. Thank you for this post.

    • Chelsey Falco

      I’m so happy to hear you’re panic attack free now! Thanks for reading!

  • Sarah Williams

    Xanax helps :) But really, I use it as a last resort.

    I’ve had anxiety from what me and the therapist have determined, forever. I was likely one of the few that was just born with it. Social and general. Joy. Having it for as long as I can remember, I never really let it hold me back much. I still participated in activities and whatnot. It wasn’t until a few years ago I had about enough of feeling like I’m constantly on edge and sought out professional help. I haven’t felt better.

    Visualization is the best one for me. I have a specific picture I use, I use it with meditation too. But it’s a tree, and it is dark outside. But the tree is a gold color. It starts off more kind of like a twig. I visualize it growing, and focus on the shimmer of the gold leaves, the branches extending, etc. Before I know it, my mind is so focused on this gorgeous picture (which by the end usually has birds, rabbits, night time flowers, a lake in the background etc), the panic has subsided.

    Another my therapist taught me, she described as “belly breathing”. It’s a form of mindful breathing. But when you take a huge breath, and your tummy sticks out (only time I want a large belly), and just focus on deep breaths in and out like that. It helps me if I put my hand on my tummy. Keeps me focused on proper form.

    Art has always helped me. I love drawing and painting. Some of my best work has come from creating something while I was anxious.

    • Chelsey Falco

      Ah, yes. I have the last resort meds, as well. I think I’ve tried belly breathing before, but I totally forgot about it! I’ll have to test it out again next time I’m anxious. Thanks for the reminder (and for reading)!

  • Ellen Chase

    I am 26 and had my first panic attack at 19. For a year or so it was everytime I the house. Lighting (too dim or bright) and background noise were my triggers. It got better on its own and resurfaced a year ago. I was eating peanutbutter sandwich and thought “its weird people are so allergic to Pb ” then I was convinced I was allegic too which made me feel like my throat was swelling shut and i asked to go to the er. Thank goodness my husband was there to remind me im not allergic to peanuts. Finally I had enough of it and went to a psychiatrist. Within 5 minutes diagnosed me with Ocd. I take zoloft now and occasional xanax
    whit h helps bigtinebut I still have major attacks usually in the evenings. Which is just what happend and how I found this article. Anyway I took a bath with the lights off and wrote this on my kindle which hasbeen an excellent distraction.good luck to everyone and I’m so thankful for the tips!

    • Chelsey Falco

      Thank you for reading! One of the best things to do during a panic attack is to find a distraction, so I’m glad this article was able to distract you!

  • Susan Nickason

    xanax helps me. But mine were triggered by the loss of a son

    • Chelsey Falco

      I’m so sorry to hear that! Thanks for reading, and hopefully some of these tips will be helpful!

  • Shelby Walker

    I have had panic attacks ever since I can remember, but only recently did I learn what they were. 1-4 work great for me, though it’s really hard to get going with the muscle focus. Number 5 on the other hand, not so much. I find if I give in to crying, it doesn’t stop and just makes it worse. One my therapist taught me is to pick things around you and describe them in detail. e.g. There’s a lamp that has a silver metal base and a blue shade with small gold stripes. It helps bring me back to the real world.

    • Chelsey Falco

      Thanks for reading! Describing things around you seems like a good method! I’ll have to try that out next time I’m panicky.

  • Sabrina Owens

    Seriously, thank you so much for writing this. I’ve also suffered from panic attacks (generalized anxiety disorder, really) from a very young age. I like the breathing exercises. And I know that it may sound odd, but I think of the worst case scenario that could come from a panic attack- which I do believe is hyperventilating and passing out. Weird, but effective!

    • Chelsey Falco

      Seriously, thank YOU for reading this! I’ve heard that thinking of the worst case scenario is really effective for some people, but I’ve always been afraid to try that out.

  • Alexandra Lamontagne

    Good article… Make you feel that you are not alone with panic attack

    • Chelsey Falco

      I’m glad you enjoyed it! Thank you for reading!

  • Amanda Caletti

    Hi! I suffered from crippling panic attacks for about 6 years, but I have to say that my first one was the absolute worst. I was at a massive music festival, waiting for Michael Franti to come on when all of a sudden my body started radiating waves of hot and cold. My internal dialogue was going a mile a minute and it felt like everything was moving in slow motion. My vision reduced to pin pricks and when my best friend turned to speak to me I freaked, running up the hill and passing out. When I came to, a moment later, I couldn’t breathe. My best friend found me and helped me walk to the First Aid tent, and because I had no idea what was going on, I thought I was dying. I remember thinking “I don’t want Ellen to see this, we’ve just celebrated my birthday and now she’s going to lose me.”

    But the fact is, she DIDN’T lose me. And none of the panic attacks I had since that first one were ever as bad, because I had a name for it. I’ve had them everywhere – Central Station in Sydney, in the middle of a busy street in Bangkok, in front of 1000 people while playing piano on stage. They were pretty bad and incredibly upsetting, but since I was diagnosed I’ve been determined to never let it stop me from doing what I want. I’ve never taken medication, but I spent 3 years going to a psychologist and getting Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. It requires daily practise when you’re in the middle of it, but the results if you stick with it will change your life for the better. I have so many mental and emotional tools at my disposal now, that it’s been 3 years since my last Panic Attack and I doubt I’ll have another one.

    Panic Attacks are just so so horrible…. But they won’t kill you. No one who hasn’t had one can ever understand what the terror is like. But with effort and determination and honesty and pure unadulterated BRAVERY anyone can get to a point where they can say their Panic Attacks are in the past. It takes a shitload of work, but it will be the best thing you ever do for yourself. YOU are the one in control. Love to all of you. xx

    • Chelsey Falco

      Thank you for reading, and thank you so much for this comment. The first panic attack is always the scariest, but you’re right: A panic attack won’t kill you.

  • Uvile-Ovayo Kweyama

    Oh, wow, thank you so much. I was diagnosed with a minor anxiety disorder and I’m prone to panic attacks, I usually have not idea what to do. This will help

    • Chelsey Falco

      Thank you for reading this, and I’m glad I was able to help you out!

  • Lauren Marie

    Thanks so much! This article was super-helpful. I have been diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and it reared its ugly head last night with panic and anxiety in regards to a move to NYC I am making today. It was great to read this and remind myself of some great tips to use, as well as learning a few new tips!

    • Chelsey Falco

      Thank you so much for reading this! I’m glad this was able to remind you of some tips, and good luck with moving!

  • Clara Lucia Acosta

    Thanks for this! I think I experienced my first panic attack yesterday. In the heat of an existential crisis, I broke down and cried for about 5 minutes, then I began laughing uncontrollably. It was weird, but I felt a lot better afterwards.

    • Chelsey Falco

      Thanks for reading! Since panic attacks are sometimes just your brain’s way of dealing with emotions, they can be cathartic at times. And laughing about it is definitely a good step to overcome any panic!

  • Erica Scales

    Great article and great comments. I have GAD and take lexapro to prevent panic. It works the vast majority of the time. It is interesting how the knowledge and understanding from non-suffers is still improving. Someone who suffers from clinical depression is more main stream. If that makes sense? Many people do not understand a panic attack unless they have had one and a helpful smarty pants labeled it for them, “I think you are having a panic attack. You are not dying. Or having a stroke or an internal hemorrhage or a brain tumor. It is extreme panic and let me tell you why….” This is a great article and very helpful for folks who are diagnosed and for others who may have witnessed a friend go through this. Watching it happen can be frightening for someone who does not understand it. GREAT JOB and excellent comments below.

    • Chelsey Falco

      Thank you for reading, and thank you for the kind words! I definitely didn’t know what was happening when I first started having panic attacks. And you’re right. We all seem to understand depression, and even anxiety, but the idea of a panic attack is still a mystery to many unless they’ve had one or witnessed one.

  • Charlotte Walker

    I’m recently diagnosed with depression and joyously have developed panic attacks. Thank you so much for this article- already tried the breathing and am off to write my feelings down! Thank you x

    • Chelsey Falco

      Thanks for reading Charlotte! I’m glad you’re already trying these tips out. There’s no quick-fix, but practicing any of these regularly can really start to ease the panic.

  • Arkytior

    I’d just like to add that music really helps, especially with me and other musicians I know. Usually something acoustic, like Hey Jude or Let it Be (the beatles) although hard rock can be good for letting it out. Anyways, this article was really helpful for me, thanks!!!!

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