Are you experiencing a sudden sensation of intense fear, terror, or dread for what seems to be no reason at all? Are you experiencing any of these physical signs?
- Pounding, racing heartbeat
- Trembling or shaking
- Tightness in your chest
- Shortness of breath, hyperventilating
- Nausea or butterflies
- Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
- Numbness or tingling sensations
- Hot or cold flashes
Are you noticing yourself thinking any of the following thoughts?
- I’m sick, dying, losing my mind.
- I’m going to throw up, stop breathing, or have a heart attack.
- I feel like I need to run, hide, or escape.
- I’m afraid of losing control in public.
- I’m afraid of embarrassing myself.
- This feeling will never stop.
If you’re experiencing a combination of these thoughts, physical sensations, and feelings of terror, you may be having a panic attack. Since many of these symptoms are physical, you should get checked out by a medical doctor to be certain.
However, if a doctor has confirmed that what you’re experiencing is a panic attack, continue reading below – there are strategies to manage a panic attack and treatments to prevent them from recurring.
A panic attack is an overwhelming combination of physical and emotional reactions that build upon each other. Although they may feel as though they arrive “out of the blue”, they are actually a chain reaction of different thoughts and physical sensations. Typically, this cycle reaches its peak of intensity in about 10 or 15 minutes, and then begins tapering off. However, you may find that it takes a long time to return to “normal”, and that you may feel quite shaken and on edge for a long while after the experience.
How to Manage a Panic Attack
- If you are experiencing a panic attack, remember, you will be okay. You’re experiencing physical sensations that can be frightening, but remember, they will pass.
- A panic attack may feel like a moment that comes out of nowhere with full force intensity. However, it’s actually a build up and snowball effect of multiple sensations and feelings. It’s important to come to learn how your particular sequence happens. Ask yourself what the first sensation is. It is a tightness in your chest? A tingling feeling? Worried thoughts about an exam? Don’t assume that the sensation is a full blown attack, just notice it for what it is.
- Breathe. Changing your breath can be an important step in stopping this cycle of sensations. As soon as you notice the initial sensation, no matter how small it is, begin to breathe slowly through your nose, counting to five, focusing on feeling your stomach expand outward. Slowly exhale through your mouth, counting to five. Practice deep breathing when feeling calm as well. Click here for guided deep breathing audio exercise from Serenity Yoga’s website.
- After focusing on deepening and slowing your breathing, bring your attention to your body. Scan it, started with your head and making your way down to your feet. Ask yourself, where am I holding tension? Work on relaxing and letting go of tension. Click here for a guided muscle relaxation audio exercise.
- Challenge your thoughts. Remind yourself that a panic attack cannot make you have a heart attack, make you faint, or make you “go crazy”. Remind yourself that a panic attack will end and that it’s not dangerous. Picture someone that you trust offering reassurance and encouragement.
- If you’re finding it’s too hard to reassure yourself, instead, find ways to distract yourself. It may be helpful to talk to someone when you’re feeling those initial sensations coming on. Alternately, immersing yourself in a project (i.e. deep cleaning your room, making a grocery list, window shopping, surfing the web) can be a helpful way to break the cycle of panic and become recentered.
- Make an appointment at Furman. Panic is treatable, and the sooner you get help, the better. Some people find that they start to worry about having a panic attack in the future. Fears about having future attacks or avoidance of places where you suspected you might have an attack are signs that panic attacks are taking up more and more mental space. There are treatments that can help you regain control over life again. Don’t suffer with this alone.
Do you have a test approaching? Are you finding yourself :
- Having trouble sleeping?
- Feeling confused or panicked?
- Having trouble concentrating?
- Feeling guilty or critical of yourself?
- Feeling nauseous, faint, or shaky?
- Feeling hopeless or filled with dread?
It will be important to follow a few guidelines before we turn to the process of calming these anxious thoughts and feelings.
• Don’t cram or pull an all-nighter. Your body and mind need rest and care before you take a test.
• Don’t spend time with classmates who generate stress. They may heighten your anxiety rather than help.
• Don’t push yourself to keep studying when you notice your anxiety intensifying. Take a break and use some of the techniques we describe below.
• Organize anything you will need before your test tomorrow. Pack your supplies and write down the location and time of the test. Having this prepared will alleviate some of the anxious thoughts that may keep you from sleeping.
• Eat a balanced meal. Your body needs fuel to cope.
• Take breaks. Surf the web, read the paper, listen to music or talk to friends – but not about the test!
With these guidelines in mind, let’s now turn to getting you through tonight. We will focus on soothing the physical sensations and challenging the thoughts that you’re experiencing.
Soothing your body
Deep breathing is an important part of calming your body’s signals of anxiety. Shifting the way you are breathing right now can help improve your concentration, soothe uncomfortable physical reactions, and help you feel more grounded and in control. Click here for a guided audio exercise from Serenity Yoga’s website.
Another way to soothe yourself is to work on releasing tension from your body. Doing this can calm the nervous sensations you’re feeling and slow down your thoughts as well. Click here for a guided audio exercise.
Soothing Your Mind
After working to slow your body’s reactions, if you still find that you’re having anxious thoughts and worries, do your best to stop or cut off these thoughts. As you notice the thoughts brewing, stop what you’re doing, practice deep breathing and tell yourself – STOP! Give yourself a moment for your thoughts to diffuse a bit. Try talking to yourself as you might a friend. Be encouraging, promise yourself a treat and break, regardless of how much work or progress you think you’ve made.
After getting through the stress and tension of preparing for an exam that is approaching quickly, it will be important to understand longer-term strategies that will help with preventing future test anxiety from arising. Praxis, a testing organization, offers some helpful strategies to learn more
It may take a bit of practice to build up your ability to soothe your mind and be able to approach tests with a calm mind. If you find yourself continuing to struggle, or find that your anxiety is worsening, you may want to consider meeting with a counselor at Furman for a consultation. To take this first step (click here) to learn now to make an appointment.
If you are looking for a way to relax, take a look online. The counseling center at Hobart & William Smith College has formulated some relaxation exercises that may be accessed here. Step-by-step instructions and mp3 exercises are provided.
To find out more, see our list of Anxiety/Stress Management Self-Help Guides and Books