Coping with panic attacks


Anxiety attacks can be dangerous and frightening, especially for those experiencing them for the first time. The attacks can vary from one individual to another and fluctuate in strength and time span. In the majority of cases however, the attacks are sudden, appearing out of the blue. Often, there is no clear reason for the attack. They may even occur when you’re relaxed or asleep.

A panic attack is a sudden surge of overwhelming anxiety and fear. Your heart pounds and you can’t breathe. You may even feel like you’re dying or going crazy. Other common symptoms include;

  • Shortness of breath or hyperventilation
  • Increased heart rate
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Feeling dizzy, light-headed, or faint
  • Sweating
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Numbness or tingling sensations
  • Hot or cold flashes
  • Choking feeling
  • Feeling unreal or detached from your surroundings, like you are looking at yourself from the outside (known as depersonalization)
  • Fear of dying, losing control, or going crazy

You may experience one or more panic attacks, yet be otherwise perfectly happy and healthy. Or, your panic attacks may occur as part of another disorder, such as panic disorder, social phobia, or depression.

Recurrent panic attacks are often triggered by a specific situation, such as crossing a bridge or speaking in public — especially if that situation has caused a panic attack before. Usually, the panic inducing situation is one in which you feel endangered and unable to escape.

Regardless of the cause, panic attacks are treatable. Left untreated however, panic attacks can lead to panic disorder and other problems. They may even cause you to withdraw from normal activities. A few examples of coping strategies you can use to reduce or eliminate the symptoms of panic attacks can be found below.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

This is one of the most common methods of dealing with anxiety attacks. CBT can be delivered on a one to one basis or through group therapy. CBT involves using a variety of techniques such as role playing, evaluation, day-to-day journals, relaxation, etc. in the hope of changing your negative emotions and thoughts and transforming them into positive ones.

Breathing Techniques

Deep breathing, also called diaphragmatic breathing, involves bringing one’s focus to the breathing process. Attention and effort is brought to each breath, allowing the belly and ribcage to completely fill with each inhalation, followed by complete exhalations, letting all of the air out.

Taking fuller breaths allows you to feel more calm and in control when faced with panic and anxiety. Practicing deep breathing can help you cope with shortness of breath, along with other common panic attack symptoms such as accelerated heart rate and muscle tension. Additionally, diaphragmatic breathing exercises shifts the focus towards the rhythm of your breath, clearing the mind of anxious, fearful, and negative thoughts.

Mindfulness Exercises

Mindfulness exercises allow you to identify, tolerate and reduce difficult, painful or frightening thoughts, feelings and sensations. Mindfulness gives you back some sense of mastery over your thoughts and feelings. Rather than having the sense that you are being pushed around by your feelings and thoughts you learn to be able to have some agency over them.

Three examples of mindfulness exercise are;

Cognitive Diversions

If you are in the midst of an anxiety attack, distract your mind from your fear through different mental diversions. For example, count backwards from 100 by 3’s, list the presidents in order, or recite the lyrics to your favourite song or poem. Force yourself to do one (or several) of these techniques until you have calmed down a bit.

The “Stop and Replace” Theory

This is a process by which you stop your anxiety producing thoughts and replace them with thoughts of something that brings you happiness or peace. For example, if you’re having anxiety about an upcoming plane flight and you can’t stop thinking about what might happen should you crash, stop that thought immediately and replace it with a thought about your vacation with your best friends.

Guided Imagery

Think of a place in which you feel at peace and relaxed; this could be your home, a favorite vacation spot, or being held by a loved one. As you think of this place continue adding details to the scene, so that you are focusing your entire mind on imagining it. Feel free to do this with your eyes closed or open, although closing your eyes may make the process easier. When you feel like you can think clearly about your anxiety, you can stop the guided imagery.


The kind of diet a person has will influence their susceptibility to panic attacks. Acidic, greasy and fatty foods help prompt stress and anxiety within the body as they promote adrenaline. Avoid consuming processed food, dairy food, food high in sodium or sugar, alcohol, nut products, etc. Have a diet regime high in proteins and carbs. Consume plenty of vegetables and fruits as they are alkaline based.

If you have severe anxiety attacks over an extended period of time, it is advised that you visit a psychologist for therapy and advice. Here at Spectrum, our Psychologists can help manage, reduce or eliminate the symptoms of panic / anxiety attacks and begin to help return your life to normality. All of our Psychologists are fully qualified and hold a current membership of the Psychological Society of Ireland.

Julie Farrar