How can I help myself or a friend during a panic attack?
Note: NAMI volunteers are not medical or mental health professionals, and we cannot offer medical or mental health advice. The material outlined below is informational, and we hope that it helps provide guidance toward getting support.
Having a panic attack can be scary, but you can get through it! This article will help you understand panic attacks and what it feels like to have one. You will also learn how to use calming relaxation strategies to get yourself or a friend through a panic attack.
What is a panic attack?
Panic attacks are short episodes of intense anxiety that can make you feel scared and overwhelmed. When you have a panic attack, your body reacts like you are in danger even though you are not. You might notice some of these feelings in your body during a panic attack:
- Racing heartbeat or pounding heart
- Trouble breathing
- Feelings of choking
- Chest pain
- Upset stomach
- Dry mouth
- Numbness or feeling tingly
- Hot and cold flashes
- Having to go to the bathroom
- Feeling like you’re not real
- Feeling like the world around you isn’t real
How can I get through a panic attack or help someone else?
The good news is that panic attacks are not dangerous and cannot hurt you. You can use one of the relaxation strategies below to help your body understand that you are safe. When your body feels safe, your panic attack symptoms will start to go away. Before trying the strategies, keep these two things in mind:
- Panic attacks start quickly but calm down more slowly. Try one strategy at a time and give it a chance to start working before moving on to another strategy.
- Some strategies might be more helpful to you than others. If you don’t like breathing exercises, try a relaxation strategy that has you move your body instead. You might need to try more than one before your panic goes away completely.
- Sit on your knees and touch your bottom to your heels, so only your shins are on the ground.
- Keep your back straight, your shoulders wide, and your chin lifted to the air, like a bunny.
- With your nose turned upward, take three big bunny sniffs through your nose, one right after the other.
- Then release your breath through your nose, like you are sighing with your nostrils.
- Repeat these steps 5-7 times. Bunny breaths can help you slow your breathing, calm your heart rate, and feel more relaxed.
Be A Cobra
- Lie down on your belly, with your head resting on your hands for 10 seconds.
- Place your hands under your shoulders and notice how your palms feel on the ground.
- Press your palms down and slowly arch your back, so that your head and chest are lifted but your legs and waist are still on the ground.
- Lift and open your chest up wide, until your arms are almost straight. Stay here for 10 seconds.
- Finally, let out a long “Hisssssss!” Try to keep the sound going for as long as you can.
- Repeat these steps again if you’d like. Breathing out through your mouth, like you do when you “Hisssssss,” and practicing a yoga pose are great ways to help your body relax.
A-B-C Around the Room
- Find a comfortable spot.
- Look around the room or area and find something that starts with the letter ‘A’. What is it?
- This time, look around and find something that starts with the letter ‘B’. What is it?
- Continue doing this for all of the letters in the alphabet(A-Z).If you can’t find anything for a letter, you can move on to the next one.
- Once you get to the letter ‘Z’ take a big, deep breath. How do you feel?
- Naming things in the room can help distract you from anxious feelings and remind your body that you are safe.
Flower and Candle
- Pretend you have a nice smelling flower in your left hand and a slow burning candle in your right hand.
- Breathe in slowly through your nose as you smell the flower.
- Breathe out slowly through your mouth as you blow out the candle.
- Repeat a few times until you start to feel better. This exercise helps you practice deep breathing, which can work to slow down your heart rate, body temperature, and other panic attack symptoms.
Song and Dance
- Pick an upbeat song that you like.
- Listen to the song and try singing along to the lyrics.
- Play the song over again. This time, start dancing! If you don’t know how or don’t like to dance, try jumping around to the beat of the music.
- Try doing this with a few different songs. This exercise can help you distract your mind, have fun, and feel safe.
- Sit back and relax. Close your eyes and pay attention to your breath as you breathe deeply and slowly, in through your nose and out through your mouth.
- Imagine a place that is special to you or somewhere you love to be. It could be an amusement park, your favorite person’s house, or somewhere you saw in a dream.
- What does your special place look like? Notice the texture of everything you see. What sounds do you hear? What does it smell like there? Notice if you feel anything on your skin, like a light breeze or the warm sun.
- In this special place, you feel safe, peaceful, happy, and loved. You are free to be yourself and you decide who else gets to visit your special place.
- Stay in your special place for as long as you’d like. If you feel safe and calm in your special place, your body will start to feel safe and calm, too.
Sour or Spicy
- Do you like sour candy? What about spicy food? You can use sour candy, spicy food, or other strong-tasting foods to help calm your anxiety.
- Pick a food that is safe for you to eat but has a very strong taste or smell, like sour candy, hot sauce, lemon juice, or peppermints. Don’t eat the food right away!
- Instead, use your 5 senses to observe the food before you eat it. Answer these questions out loud:
- What does it look like? What color is it?
- What is the texture like?
- If you squeeze some hot sauce on a spoon or put some candy in a dish, what sound does the food make as it’s leaving the container?
- Bring the food up to your nose. What does it smell like?
- Now, go ahead and eat the food. Notice how it tastes and how it feels on your tongue.
- Do this a few times if you need. Using your 5 senses and tasting something with a strong flavor are strategies that help calm your body down when it's panicked.
Guided Relaxation Exercises
Sometimes, it’s easier to practice relaxation exercises when someone talks you through it. If you’d like to try a guided relaxation exercise for help during a panic attack, check out one of these videos:
- Heartbeat: A Mindfulness Exercise to Calm Your Emotions
- The 5-4-3-2-1 Method: A Grounding Exercise to Manage Anxiety
- The Equal Breathing Method: An Exercise to Calm Anxiety
Nothing is working. I need help!
If you have tried relaxation strategies and you’re still not feeling better, it might be time to ask for help. Tell your parents or caregivers that you’re having panic attacks and that you need help learning how to get through them. If you can’t talk to your parents, try talking to another trusted adult like a grandparent, teacher, or doctor.
You can also contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline for help with a panic attack. 988 counselors are:
- Available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year
- Trained to support people in a mental health crisis
- Able to help you through a panic attack
- Reachable by chat at https://988lifeline.org/chat/