What to do when panic attacks!

Here are some helpful tips on how to help manage a panic attack in everyday situations: on public transport, on a plane, in a crowded place, at school, work, university or when meeting new people. 

All of a sudden your heart begins to pound, and your mind races. Your tongue feels like carpet and your palms have sprung a leak. It may be triggered by something actual, or perhaps a scenario in your mind, but regardless of what sets off a panic attack, it’s a terrifying feeling.

Many people will experience at least one panic attack in their lives, and you are twice as susceptible if you are a woman. It may be a symptom of a deeper issue, or it may just be a one off incident that catches you completely by surprise. 

“A panic attack is an intense surge of fear or discomfort, which reaches a peak within 10 minutes, and involves a number of physical and emotional symptoms,” says From The Leftfield’s psychologist, Dr Sasha Lynn. 

“Things such as heart palpitations, feeling dizzy, feeling out of control, nausea, chills, fear of dying, and chest pains can all indicate a panic attack is occurring. They don’t just occur in anxiety either; they can happen in a bout of depression, substance use and other difficult areas of life.”

Understanding what is happening to you, and knowing how to cope with it can help you realise that the situation is not life threatening, and if you can calm down will pass in minutes.

“Recognising your early warning signs is helpful, and once you feel them coming on, learning to calm the body down with breathing and progressive muscular relaxation can be helpful,’ tells Dr Lynn.

“Then once the body is calm, it’s time to work on the mind; learning to recognise those thoughts that are unhelpful, and challenging them. It’s not about positive thinking, because let’s be honest, there isn’t much to be positive about with a panic attack!”

If you have a specific thing that causes panic to attack every time you even think about it, you may believe it's best to avoid those situations all together.

Not so.

“One of the best ways to manage panic attacks is to desensitise yourself. Instead of avoiding things that you think might cause a panic attack, you sit with it, you let it peak, and then wait for it to subside. The best way to get over an attack, is to go through it. And of course the three core staples - regular exercise, regular eating habits and regular sleeping habits are all vital in managing panic,” she says.

The scenarios that may trigger a panic attack can differ for everyone, but here are a few common scenarios in which they strike, and some advice on how best to strike back.

Man holding train rail
On public transport

It can be hot, and crowded, with too many smells and bumps when the feelings begin to well up whilst on the bus, train or tram.
 
“Slow down and take ten calm and slow breaths. Slowly contract muscles, hold for seven seconds and then release. Just focus on the present; find three things you can see, hear, and smell. It’s not always possible to find space on public transport, but trying to situate yourself near a window or a door is helpful,” says Dr Lynn.
 
On a plane
 
A fear of flying is not an uncommon phobia, which can trigger the old panics. Learning to manage it frees you up to travel more freely. Your logical brain most likely understands the statistics surrounding air travel and it’s safety, however the fear remains.
 
Arrive early to the airport and watch the planes take off and land. Always choose the most direct flight possible. Speak to the cabin crew and let them know how you’re feeling. Remember to take slow, deep breaths, and remind yourself that some bumps are all part of the process and are not a sign of something going wrong. 
 
In a crowded public place
 
Agoraphobia (and extreme or irrational fear of open or public places) and panic attacks can sometimes go hand in hand. 
 
“Focus on one specific thing,” says Dr Lynn.  “Whether it’s a familiar face, or a landmark, break the situation down and just stay in the present. Use calm breathing, and balanced thinking. Coping statements can often help until the panic passes. Things like ‘I will be OK’, ‘this won’t last forever’.”
 
At school, work or university
 
At times we feel pressure in these situations which can spark anxiety and feelings of panic. Try to find a quiet spot, either outside or inside, to calm yourself down with controlled breathing and mindful concentration on your senses of smell, hearing and touch.
 
If you can not get away from where you are, continue with the same breath and mindfulness. Remind yourself that this is only one moment in your career, or academic life, and it will pass soon.
 
When meeting new people
 
Meeting new people can often take you out of your comfort zone. This can be enough to trigger a panic attack.
 
“Go in prepared,” says Dr Lynn. “Have some small talk ideas, or questions in mind to help feel that you’re in control. Calm the body down, reflect on positive interactions that you’ve successfully negotiated in the past.”
 
To learn more about the symptoms of panic attacks, check our our article - the facts about panic attacks.

If you'd like to learn more about anxiety or mental health, click here for additional Blue Room resources.

Anyone concerned about their mental health, or the mental health of others, is encouraged to reach out to their GP. There are also a range of services available for anyone who needs help. For young people between 12 and 24 years old headspace offers confidential online counselling, phone assistance, or you can walk into one of their centres. For adults,MindSpot and beyondblue also offer free telephone and online support services. If you need to speak to someone urgently you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14. 

 
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