I think I had a panic attack. Will this happen again, and what's the best way to handle it?
Dr. Caroline A. Pagé, Clinical Psychologist, Operational Stress Injury Clinic
The current situation with the coronavirus is unprecedented, and it's understandable that some people may have a panic attack. A panic attack is frightening and physically uncomfortable: Your heart pounds, your chest hurts, you can’t breathe very well. You might feel like you’re choking, or having a heart attack. You’re losing control and are afraid of dying.
Panic attacks typically occur out of the blue and for no reason. These physical sensations begin quickly and build to a peak very rapidly (usually in eight to ten minutes). They are often accompanied by a sense of imminent danger or impending death and an urge to escape. People who have recurring panic attacks fear having another one. However, if we let the anxiety build and tolerate it – like we tolerate cold water during a swim – we can successfully manage a panic attack.
What can I do if I have a panic attack?
- Tell yourself that it won’t last. These uncomfortable physical sensations are simply an exaggerated physical response and are not dangerous.
- Do not let negative thoughts add to your panic attack. Concentrate on what is happening in your body instead of thinking how long it will last and how scared you are.
- Do not fight your panic attack. Accept the discomfort and stay where you are.
- Try doing a mindfulness exercise, or meditating instead. Being in the present moment is key to managing a panic attack. Try to modify your thoughts. Remember these are only uncomfortable physical sensations and are not dangerous.
- Engage in Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT) with a specialist trained for anxiety disorders.
- BounceBack is a free skill-building program managed by the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) at www.bouncebackontario.ca
- Keep in mind that medication can help in the short-term while you engage and learn skills in therapy.
- A support group will help you learn from others and remind you that you are not alone.