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Calm and control: how to recognize and help stop a panic attack


Author: Dariia Serdiuk

Panic attacks are a common reaction to severe stress. In simple terms, it is an unexpected attack of strong fear, for no apparent reason. In this article, we understand how to recognize a panic attack and how to help yourself or others cope with it.

The physical symptoms of a panic attack are somewhat similar to those of a heart attack. Therefore, they are often confused with heart problems:

  • Rapid heartbeat, pulsation or heart tugs. Chest pain often occurs.
  • Lack of air, a lump in the throat, shortness of breath.
  • Heat or cold sweat and shivering.
  • Dizziness and weakness in the body.

Psychological symptoms of a panic attack:

  • Strong fear of death. It is often associated with physical symptoms: a person thinks he/she has a heart attack, suffocating etc.
  • Derealization, when the surrounding world seems unreal.
  • Depersonalization, when a person seems to cease to “feel like himself”, separated from his/her body, emotions, thoughts (“these are not my hands”, “these actions are not done by me, but by someone else for me”, “this is not my voice”, etc.).
  • Loss of orientation in space.

If you have witnessed a panic attack, your main task is not to panic yourself. You should become a guide for a person, his/her beacon in an unstable sea.

First of all, take the person’s hand and try to find the most comfortable conditions for him/her. If you are in a crowd, leave the crowd. You can hug a person if your relationship allows it.

Talk to him/her. Remind that you are nearby and will help. Avoid disturbing topics.

Help a person regain control over his/her body and the world around him. Remember several effective methods that will help you overcome a panic attack.

Breathing exercises. It is incredibly important to regain control over breathing. Use the “breathing square”:

  • inhale to the count of 4;
  • hold your breath for 4 seconds;
  • exhalation on the count of 4;
  • repeat 5-8 times.

Specific questions to bring awareness back. Ask if the person knows where he/she is, his/her profession, how old he/she is, what your name is. Wait for the answer. And in no case do not say words like “Don’t be afraid”, “Calm down”. They will not help, only devalue the human condition.

The “5-4-3-2-1” technique perfectly brings you back to reality and reduces tension. Name it

  • 5 things you can see right now (window, picture, clock, etc.);
  • 4 things you feel physically (clothes on your body, wind, etc.);
  • 3 things you hear (music, cars, etc.);
  • 2 things you smell (perfume, coffee, etc.);
  • 1 thing you can taste (sweet candy, gum, etc.).

‌Help the person do these exercises or use them yourself if you feel like you’re losing your composure and control over the situation. Single panic attacks are not a disorder. However, if they are repeated often, you should ask for help.

Ukrainians can find free psychological help here: