Similar to “anxious” and “depressed,” the words “panic attack” are often watered down in everyday jargon. “I’m having a panic attack!” is code for “I’m freaking out about this test” or “I’m really stressed about a problem I don’t know how to solve.” Exaggerated panic attacks also make great comedy, it seems, as lovable but slightly anxious characters breathe into paper bags while giving the appearance of a complete loss of control over something fairly insignificant.

Panic attacks are anything but funny in reality, however, and people who suffer panic attacks don’t have the ability to state, “I’m having a panic attack” or search out a brown paper lunch bag when in the throes of an actual attack. Anyone who has endured a panic knows that the symptoms are sudden, frightening, and difficult to manage.

Loved ones and other important people in your life (teachers, coaches, good friends) can be great sources of support during a panic attack if you help them understand what a panic attack means and how they can help.

Try breaking it down to make it easier to process.

I don’t get any warning.

One of the most difficult parts of panic attacks is that they typically occur without warning. They can swoop in from out of nowhere, with no oncoming symptoms.

Panic attacks are sudden and include a wide range of physical and emotional symptoms. This makes them feel overwhelming and difficult to manage. People can have panic attacks just about anywhere, even when they appear perfectly calm just moments before the attack.

I feel like I’m in physical danger or losing control of my mind.

Common symptoms of panic attacks can include the following:

  • Chest pain
  • A feeling of choking
  • Trembling
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • Feeling like your limbs are going numb or tingling
  • Fear of dying
  • Fear of losing control
  • Intrusive, highly anxious thoughts

Panic attacks don’t last as long as they feel like they do.

Panic attacks feel like an eternity to the sufferer, but the reality is that your body can’t sustain them for very long. The brain goes into fight or flight mode when people experience panic attacks.

Panic attacks typically reach their peak within ten minutes and resolve within thirty minutes. They rarely last more than an hour. That thirty-minute period is so physically and emotionally overwhelming, however, that it feels like much longer and requires a significant recovery period after. Panic attacks are very draining and it’s difficult to jump right back into school, work, or family fun immediately following an attack.

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There’s no clear cause of panic attacks.

Not every person who struggles with anxiety also has panic attacks, but there can be a genetic predisposition to them. People with anxiety disorders and mood disorders are at a higher risk, and panic attacks do tend to run in families.

Panic attacks are also associated with major life transitions (graduating from college, changing jobs, getting married, having a baby), severe stress (death of a loved one, divorce, job loss), and certain medical conditions. Panic attacks can be triggered by stimulant use, including caffeine, and withdrawal from medication.

The anticipation of future attacks triggers me.

Due to the sudden and unpredictable nature of panic attacks, it can be difficult to make plans to venture too far from home. Anticipatory anxiety can make ordinary outings, like watching a baseball game, feel overwhelming due to intrusive thoughts about the difficulty of finding an escape route or getting caught in a crowd.

You can help guide me through a panic attack.

The best thing you can do if you see me having a panic attack is to stay calm and talk me through it. When a panic attack strikes, I will feel a combination of overwhelming fear and some of the scary physical symptoms listed above. This is what helps:

  • Deep breathing: I don’t need the paper bag, but it helps if you count my breaths with me. Breathing in for four, holding for four, and releasing for four helps slow my heart rate and decrease the physical symptoms I experience.
  • Coping statements: Talking back to my irrational thoughts with assertive coping statements helps me work through the attack. Saying, “I’m not dying, I’m feeling anxious,” disrupts the irrational thought process.
  • Distraction: Once I’m using my deep breathing, it helps to shift my focus.

Once the panic has passed, I need time to unwind and recover. Taking a walk or simply getting outside can help.

Your loved ones might never truly understand how you feel when you have a panic attack, but educating them helps them better understand what a panic attack is, symptoms to look for, and how they can help you when they see you in distress.

Last Updated: May 21, 2018