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What to do when you’re having a panic attack

Quarantine, testing, masks, social isolation...the stress related to the coronavirus and the ongoing pandemic has all of us on high alert at times, with increases in both the number of Americans experiencing anxiety and the amount of stress and anxiety we’re feeling.

And for some, there’s also been an increase in, or the start of, panic attacks.

Panic attacks are attacks of intense fear that come on suddenly and can trigger severe physical reactions with no apparent cause, according to the Mayo Clinic. The physical symptoms, including shortness of breath and rapid or irregular heartbeats, can make it feel as if you’re having a heart attack, or even make you wonder if you’re dying.

While you can’t simply dismiss them or wish them away, you can manage panic attacks with strong intention and a few simple, focused steps. Here are four ways to respond to a panic attack and calm yourself while it’s happening.

One: Breathe slowly and deeply.

Breathing consciously in this way is one of the best ways to lower stress in the body because it sends a message to your brain to relax which is then passed on to your body, according to the University of Michigan Health System.

Try this breathing exercise from NHS Inform, Scotland's national health information service:

  • Breathe in as slowly, deeply and gently as you can, through your nose;

  • Breathe out slowly, deeply and gently through your mouth;

  • Some people find it helpful to count steadily from one to five on each in-breath and each out-breath; and,

  • Close your eyes and focus on your breathing.

Two: Remind yourself that you’re experiencing a panic attack

Acknowledging that you’re having a panic attack, affirms that it’s a temporary event that will pass and reassures you that you’re OK, and not dying or experiencing a heart attack.

Paul Salkovskis, professor of Clinical Psychology and Applied Science at the University of Bath in the United Kingdom, told NHS Inform that it’s important to ride out the panic attack.

"Panic attacks always pass and the symptoms are not a sign of anything harmful happening," Salkovskis said. "Tell yourself that the symptoms you're experiencing are caused by anxiety."

“Try to keep doing things. If possible, it's important to try to remain in the situation until the anxiety has subsided,” he added.

Three: Mindfulness

Like Salkovskis’ advice to ride a panic attack out, mindfulness encourages awareness of your fear and feeling the sensations.

Research has shown that mindfulness helps us reduce anxiety and depression. It teaches us how to respond to our fear with awareness of what is actually taking place - in our emotions and body and in the physical space around us, rather than acting on our fear in an instinctive way.

Through this awareness, we can become more aware of the emotions that are triggering our fears.

Four: Exercise

If you’re able to during an attack, try easy exercise like yoga, walking, or stretching to help you relax and calm yourself. Regular exercise will help you manage your stress levels and stabilize your emotions. It can also help produce feelings of well-being through endorphins released in your brain that can help you relax.

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