Start by recognizing the symptoms.

By Alyssa Brown
November 08, 2019

If you or someone you love suffers from anxiety or panic attacks, sometimes simply getting through the attack itself feels like an overwhelming task. After all, an anxiety attack's symptoms often mask those of a heart attack—a sudden, intense fear of dying, numbness, and tingling sensations included. The important thing to know is that recognizing these signs is the first line of defense in defusing the attack's effects. Here, psychotherapist, professor, and author Dr. Ilene S. Cohen explains how to recognize an anxiety or panic attack—plus, she shares practical strategies to help you (or your loved one) get through it.

Related: Eating More Fruits and Vegetables Could Benefit Your Mental Health

Watch for symptoms.

"An anxiety or panic attack can be described as a sudden onset of intense fear or discomfort that reaches a peak very quickly," explains Dr. Cohen. "Common signs people should learn to recognize are accelerated heart rate, sweating, shaking, shortness of breath, chest pain, nausea, feeling light-headed, numbness or tingling sensations, fear of losing control or 'going crazy'—and a fear of dying."

Identify, accept, and breathe.

After you identify the attack's symptoms, the next thing to do is actually to accept what follows. "When an attack strikes, the first thing a person should do is identify what it is," continues Dr. Cohen, adding that then recognizing and validating attack will help defuse the (very scary) feeling that the end is near. "Many people fear the worst when panic attacks start and this can make them feel more intense. So, first recognize and define it—then don't try to stop it. I know that sounds counterintuitive, but the more we try to stop something, the more it persists."

Her tips for finding acceptance? "First say something to yourself like, 'This is a panic attack and it's okay.' Then, try some deep breathing by inhaling slowly and deeply through your nose. Keep your shoulders relaxed, then exhale slowly through your mouth. As you blow air out, purse your lips slightly, but keep your jaw relaxed. When breathing in say to yourself, 'I know I am breathing in,' and when you exhale, say to yourself, 'I know I am breathing out.' Continue this process until you feel relaxed."

Loved ones: Know how to help.

Dr. Cohen knows it's difficult not to become anxious yourself when you witness someone you love have an anxiety attack—and adds that it's completely normal to feel unease. "It's okay to be anxious, too," she says, and advises you to reach out to your loved one about how you can help. "If they are in the midst of a major attack and can't verbalize too much, human touch is important. Place your hand on his or her back and practice the breathing exercise with them."

"You can also reassure them that everything is okay, they are safe, and you are there with them. If they can talk, you can count backwards with them by 2s from 30. By having to count backwards by 2s they will concentrate on something else, keeping their mind off the panic," she continues. "Again, don't stress about needing the panic to stop—let them know they can take all the time they need and normalize their experience."

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