Natalie, Student Wellbeing Champion, discusses tips to help you manage panic attacks…
A panic attack is a rush of anxiety which exaggerates your body’s normal response to fear, stress or excitement. It is a rapid build-up of overwhelming physical sensation, usually accompanying a feeling of fear that you are losing control, going to faint, have a heart attack or that you are going to die. If you think that you or someone you know is experiencing panic attacks, here are some tips for recognising and managing them.
You can also see our videos towards the end on relaxation techniques and managing anxiety to help control your symptoms and prevent future attacks.
Panic attack symptoms
Although the symptoms are different from one person to another, the common symptoms of a panic attack include:
- Palpitations, irregular heartbeat
- Dizziness and light-headedness
- Shortness of breath- feeling like you are not getting enough air
- Choking sensation and nausea
- Chest pain , heartburn or tingling sensations in your fingers
- Fear that you might die or be seriously ill
- Numbness or pins and needles
- Hot flashes or sudden chills
- Dry mouth
- Feeling faint, shaking and sweating
Panic attacks can be a one-time occurrence, although a lot of people often experience repeated episodes. Since the physical symptoms are so unpleasant, they can be accompanied by acute fear or terror. You may become hyper vigilant and become preoccupied with your heart rate and the physical sensation. When there is an irregular change in your body, you may become very worried and anxious that it is the beginning of a panic attack. This can create a cycle of fear.
Tips to help you cope with panic attacks
If you think you or a friend is experiencing a panic attack, these techniques may help.
1. Take a break- If you are experiencing the symptoms of a panic attack, wherever you are, change your environment and take a break. If you are in a movie theatre, go to the toilet. If you are in a café, go outside to get some fresh air. Take your time, you do not have to rush. A useful tip is to “STOPP.”
Stop: Pause what you are doing for a moment
Take a breath: noticing your breathing
Observe: what thoughts are you having, what are you feeling, etc.
Put in some perspective: consider the bigger picture, what advice would you give a friend
Practise what works: what’s the best thing to do right now, what is effective and appropriate
Once you complete that, try saying this out loud to yourself:
5 things you can see right now
4 things you can hear right now
3 things you can touch, and reach out to touch them
2 things you can smell or like the smell of
1 slow, deep breath.
Then focus on your breathing, before shifting your focus of attention onto something different.
Adapted from: getselfhelp.co.uk
2. Learn how to control your breath- When we panic, we breathe quickly as the body assumes we are in danger and would need to “fight or flight.” This abnormally rapid rate of breath is called hyperventilation which results in too much oxygen (even though it may feel like you don’t have oxygen) and not enough Carbon Dioxide (CO2) being retained. To extract the oxygen from your blood, your body needs a certain amount of CO2, and when there is not enough CO2, you feel as if you are short of air.
Tricks to stop hyperventilating include: holding your breath for as long as you feel comfortable to calm the hyperventilation, breathe in and out of a paper bag if available (help you re-inhale carbon dioxide) and focus on counting your breath (in- 1,2,3,4, out 1,2,3,4…etc).
Practising mindfulness exercises may also help you control your breath. Remember that even though it is scary, you are getting enough air and you will not faint, have a heart attack or die from this feeling. Panic attacks usually last between 5-20 minutes, with the average of around 10 minutes. The feeling will pass.
3. Learn from the panic attacks– Recurrent panic attacks are often triggered by a specific situation, such as: public speaking, crossing a bridge, being in a confined space (like an elevator) or even feeling unstable such as being in a car or a Ferris wheel. Knowing what causes your panic attacks will help you avoid them. You should also notice what works for you, whether it is to talk to a friend to get your mind off of it, going outside to get some fresh air or doing breathing exercises.
4. Talk to someone and get help- When you are experiencing panic attacks, even when it seems so overwhelming that you can barely talk, let your friends or loved ones know what is happening and how you are feeling. This will not only distract yourself from the feeling, but will also help you feel supported and less isolated as result of your illness. It will also allow them to understand what you are going through, and let them know the triggers so that they can help you avoid panic attacks in the future.
There are also resources out there that could help you with your anxiety and panic attacks, such as medication and talking therapy. If you think that your panic attacks are becoming problematic in your daily life, talk to your GP about the options available.
The Counselling, Health and Wellbeing Team offer counselling sessions, including one-to-one and drop-in sessions at 3pm. They also offer courses and workshops which may be useful to you and which you can read more about in our courses and workshops blog. Some of the programmes which may be useful to you include:
- Mindfulness course– This happens once a week for an hour and includes relaxation techniques, body scans, mindfulness eating and many other activities that would help you become more mindful. This can help you understand what is going through your mind during a panic attack and may help you to relax, take perspectives and understand that what is happening will pass.
- Long-term group work– If you are seeing a counsellor on an ongoing basis and would like to get extra support more regularly, this group meets once a week to discuss how you are doing. It also includes learning new techniques and developing new skills to help you cope with your feelings.
If you would like to find out more about our courses and workshops or to sign up for one, please click here.
Watch our video: Relaxation techniques
We have five relaxation technique videos. To see the full playlist, click here.
Watch our video: Tips on managing anxiety
If you would like to talk to someone during a panic attack, here are a few helplines available:
*C.A.L.L.: (Community Advice & Listening Line for Wales) tel: 0800 132 737 or text HELP and your question to 81066 www.callhelpline.org.uk
*Greenwich Minds: Tel: 0208 853 1735, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
*No Panic: Tel: 0844 967 4848, Email: email@example.com
*Self Help Services Tel: 0300 003 7029, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Contacting Counselling Health and Wellbeing
If you are struggling to improve your wellbeing, please know Cardiff University Support Services are here for you – there is no problem too big or too small and we would be happy to provide you with some support. We offer a range of flexible support options including:
- Counselling and Wellbeing Appointments
- Face to Face, Online or Telephone
- Wellbeing Walk-in: Drop-in Service running Monday to Friday
- Wellbeing Workshops
- Therapeutic Groups
- Wellbeing Champion Support
- Self-help resources
Bookable appointments are available via our online referral questionnaire. We also offer a Wellbeing Walk-In Service, Monday to Friday, 3pm to 3.45pm and Wednesday mornings, 9.30am to 10.15am, at the Student Support Centre at 50 Park Place. We also hold a walk-in service at our Student Support Centre in Cardigan House at the Heath, on Wednesday afternoons 3pm to 3.45pm.
Watch our video and see for yourself that we have friendly and approachable staff. Staff who are able to listen to you non-judgmentally, in a safe and confidential space.
If talking to a member of staff is something you are not sure about, why not chat to one of our Student Wellbeing Champions. They are trained student volunteers who can signpost you to support, offer you a peer ear and give you basic health and wellbeing advice. If you would like to see our Champions in action, check out their video.
If you are worried that you are experiencing physical symptoms that may be affecting your health, we strongly advise you to make a GP appointment to discuss this. If you do not already have a GP, please contact NHS Wales on 0845 46 47 or check out their website to view all of your GP options. The University also has its own GP Practice – Park Place Surgery for those in their catchment area.
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Natalie, Student Wellbeing Champion.
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