A few days ago I saw a post asking for suggestions on what to do during an anxiety attack in order to help a loved one experience overwhelming anxiety. It set off a little ping in my heart, one I can relate to on many levels. I understand how difficult it is to watch someone have an anxiety attack (or panic attack) and I also know what it’s like to go through an anxiety attack myself. This past year has made me really open up about the anxiety, depression and stress within my household in hope to help others as we battle our own journeys.
In this post, I’m going to share what to do during an anxiety attack or panic attack, this is more so the adult version. I will write up a child version as well and link it here. However until then please feel free to give these a try in the meantime. I will also discuss what an anxiety attack feels like and what an anxiety attack looks like. What you should not do during an anxiety attack, what causes anxiety attacks and the strategies I have found helpful to stop and prevent anxiety attacks.
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What NOT to do during an anxiety attack
When you see someone having an anxiety attack or panic attack, lord only knows the first thing that flies out of one’s mouth is “Take a deep breath” or “Breathe”
Let me tell you right now, yes breathing can help wonders but at that moment NO ONE wants to hear you say “Just breathe.” They are in their head thinking “Bitch, if I could breathe and focus on my breathing I wouldn’t be having a fucking panic attack!” Ok maybe not everyone will have that reaction but I sure as hell know I have and I have seen my daughter react the same way.
Under NO circumstances will you tell someone to Just Breathe! Got it? Good!
Ok so we got that out there, let’s move on to what to do during an anxiety attack. Ah, first we should cover what an anxiety attack looks and feels like.
What does an anxiety attack look and feel like?
If you are the person who suffers anxiety attacks you may relate to what I’m describing and if you are the person wanting to support the person having the anxiety attack and never personally experienced one yourself I’m going to try to paint a picture for you in hopes that it can help you understand what is happening.
I would love any input on what an anxiety attack feels like for you if you would like to share send me an email or drop a comment.
My head is filling with pressure.
My thoughts are racing and gaining speed.
My heart begins to beat fast.
I feel this heavyweight in my chest
it screams to break free.
It feels like butterflies on steroids inside
trying to burst through the walls of my heart.
My head is racing faster,
my thoughts are everywhere
I’m losing control,
my chest tightens,
my breaths become shallow and quick.
I feel like my head can’t stop spinning
It won’t shut up!
My breathing begins to race
and I start pacing
and clenching my fists
and feeling like I will implode.
I can’t make my brain stop,
it won’t stop,
my thoughts are racing,
my body is forcing me to stay within
I just feel I need to break free!
I can’t hear what you are saying
I can’t hear anything
even the silence is so loud that it is deafening.
I can’t focus on your lips,
I can’t focus on your words,
I’m trying to get away from myself
I’m trying to get away from the world around me.
I can’t be still,
I need to rock,
I need to move,
I need to pace because I can’t stop.
I need out of this but I don’t know how to get out.
-what an anxiety attack feels like to me
All of that of within a minute or two. It comes on quickly and it can gain power with rapid forceful speed.
You may witness the following happen to someone during an anxiety attack:
- grabbing their head,
- tears streaming down their face,
- pulling their head between their knees,
- curling into the fetal position,
- pacing back and forth,
- curling up in a ball,
- hiding their face,
- their face may be strewn with anguish or pain or despair,
- clawing at fabric, clothing or their hair.
What causes anxiety attacks?
Some anxiety attacks are triggered by PTSD, if you struggle with PTSD please read this article on some steps to help. When dealing with past trauma in our life and a situation puts us into a flashback of the traumatic experience it can cause an immediate anxiety attack or one a little bit down the road once the adrenaline of the situation dissipates.
Some attacks are caused by overthinking, you can read about getting your brain to shut up in this article here. Overthinking has been an overlooked anxiety-causing instrument for far too long, I think.
We tend to put a lot of pressure on ourselves to do everything and do it perfectly, for everyone and everything. Then we second guess situations and our brain just never shut up. If our mindset is one that is critical it can tear us down faster than we can build ourselves up. This can be extremely debilitating to our mental health!
All these racing thoughts and ongoing to-do lists and critical thinking is setting the perfect minefield for an anxiety attack bomb to go off! If you need some help living in the moment and practicing mindfulness our mindfulness planner and tracker helps you keep all of the to-dos organized and reminds you to practise self-care and being present.
This past year a lot of anxiety attacks around the world have been related to The COVID-19 Mental Health Crisis, (read tips, strategies and tips to surviving the mental health crisis here). Isolation, financial loss, loss of loved ones and the loss of control all contributing factors.
We have all felt the loss of control in the world around us. We are being told what we can and cannot do and it causes fear in people. We all strive to maintain control in life and the lines of control can become skewed.
Remember that you can only control your thoughts and actions and the environment around you. Our mini-course Staying Positive During Difficult Times may be helpful for you if this is something you want to work on.
Financial worries are a huge issue in many lives, and often times a huge obstacle in relationships and one of the top causes of divorce. I get it money is hard, when you grow up in a world where the money is something that is fought for and a challenge it can be difficult to fix your money mindset around it. Which in itself is a huge trigger for anxiety.
You can read my Money Mindset article here to learn more and check out The Financial Tracker & Planner for an amazing tool to help you with your finances created by Moi!
Anxiety attacks stem from a feeling of loss of control. This loss of control can be form any part of your life, it can be triggered by other peoples actions or words.
What to do during an anxiety attack: Strategy 1- Pinch Yourself or Apply Pressure
This strategy is one I use when I feel an anxiety attack taking over. I use it as soon as I realize that I have crossed over the line of feeling anxious and I am losing control of my feelings and thoughts.
Pinch yourself/ apply pressure. What I mean by this is to use your thumb and pointer finger, I also use my middle finger, and apply pressure on your opposite hand. For myself, it is my left hand where I apply the pressure on the meaty part behind my thumb.
Keep the pressure consistent and focus on the feeling in your hand. If the thoughts in your mind and the anxious feeling continue to increase then apply more pressure. Try to focus on the pain/pressure you feel and slowly release the pressure to a lesser level and resume consistency.
Forget everything happening around you, close your eyes if you need to and focus solely on that one part of your body.
This part of your hand may or may not be the part that helps you regain that focus, it also may be the right part but it may be the wrong hand for you. You can also try pinching your fingertips or perhaps a different part of your body. However, avoid biting your lip or tongue as you may cause yourself to bleed and do not use your fingernails to dig into the skin.
Why does this technique work?
This technique is a form of grounding. Grounding is effective because it distracts our minds from the impending doom-filled thoughts that are causing us to have an anxiety attack.
Distraction from those thoughts allows our mind to regain focus and turn off the overthinking. It helps us to get into the now, the present moment.
What to do during an anxiety attack: Strategy 2- Hold / Squeeze Something
This next strategy is effective if you have an object around you that you can either squeeze or hold tightly. Perhaps a stress ball or a healing crystal or maybe even a teddy bear or pillow so you can get a big squeeze.
For this strategy, it helps to plan what you will use during your next anxiety attack so that when your mind is on overload and you can not think straight, you just need to remember that one thing that you already planned out. I find it more helpful to have a preplanned object rather than a spur-of-the-moment object, which I will explain in the why it works section.
When you are squeezing or hugging the object (or perhaps its someone near you that you love) focus on the feeling against your body/palm and try to remain focused on that alone. Again closing your eyes may help.
Why this strategy works:
This strategy works much the same as the pinch/ apply pressure technique. It distracts us from the thoughts in our mind and refocuses our thoughts from our breathing and the symptoms we feel within ourselves.
Preplanning the object that you will use also gives you a sense of control. Personally, I find a large object that I can hug to be more effective. Hugging releases hormones that make us feel good like dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin.
Strategy # 3 for what to do during an anxiety attack: Breathing
I know, I know I told you NOT to tell someone to just breathe and I stand by that!
So, what can you do if you see someone having an anxiety attack?
First, ask them if there is anything you can do, don’t assume you know what is best. If this is someone you help again in the future, you still should ask. ALWAYS ASK!
The following suggestion is to be used if you have an appropriate relationship with the other person, a spouse, your child or a very close friend. Do NOT attempt this with a stranger. If they respond well to you, ask if you can help and if they agree then proceed with these steps:
- Remain calm and move slowly,
- Get down to their level, even if they are sitting or laying on the floor,
- Look them in the eyes,
- Take their hands in your hands (*if appropriate),
- Breath slow deep breaths in and out,
- Emphasize your breathing but do not tell them to follow along,
- Once they begin to mimic your breathing continue until they calm down.
If you do not have a personal relationship with the person you can still focus on your breathing but restrain from touching and getting within the person’s bubble.
When we emphasize deep breathing we create a mimicking environment. We are not telling someone what to do, therefore we are not challenging their sense of control. We are being patient and calm and creating an environment to help the person transition to a more calming state at their own accord.
What to do during an anxiety attack- breathing for self:
Ok, so you are the person in the anxiety attack what breathing technique works best at the moment?
Personally, the breathing technique I find most helpful is one I shared in my stress and relaxation article so let me share it here. Be sure to check out all the 10 tips to help prevent stress and anxiety.
What to do during an anxiety attack breathing technique:
Picture a square in your mind, give it a nice tranquil colour in your mind’s eye or maybe your favourite colour.
Get a clear picture of it in your mind. Now imagine each side is numbered one through four. I like to start at the top.
Side number one is taking a deep breath in imagining your lungs filling with revitalizing air, take notice of the full feeling. Hold for five seconds as you imagine in your mind that you are tracing your finger along the side as you count to five.
Side number two is holding your breath in imagining the fullness is one of tranquillity. Again, imagine tracing the side as you count to five.
Side number three is exhaling deeply concentrating on the feeling of your lungs emptying and cleansing themselves of any negative pressures. Once again draw your line along the side as you count.
The final side number four is to allow yourself 5 seconds of noticing the cleansed feeling, your lungs are empty and they are resting you are drawing the final line and thinking of nothing else.
Repeat your tracing of the sides 3-5 times until you feel your mind slow.
–10 Stress Relief Activities To Relax Your Mind, Body & Soul
What to do during an anxiety attack when it is not your attack.
So, we touched on one strategy above that you can do when you witness someone having an attack and I thought we should maybe go over real quick what may be appropriate and what would not be appropriate.
First and foremost, always, always, ALWAYS ASK, do not assume, do not take it upon yourself to decide what needs to happen.
Do they take medication? If so, ask them if they would like you to get it for them. If you are unsure whether they do or not you could try asking if you can get them anything, maybe even a glass of water.
Do not ask too many questions! Do not make too many suggestions.
Not only may they not hear you but you may also increase their anxiety.
Remember to give them space and only reach out to them if they permit and the relationship and current situation deems appropriate for such behaviour.
When speaking to them try to use positive empowering language such as “You are doing really good, you can get through this, you are in control” and “I am here for you, You are safe” Remember to use short sentences to not overload them.
What to do during an anxiety attack: Once you gain some focus
Once you gain a bit of focus, it is important to take some form of action to break the anxiety so that it does not start again.
Try focusing on a time in your life that made you extremely happy and filled with joy. Focus on the feelings and where you felt them during that moment. Did you feel a flutter of butterflies in your tummy? Can you recreate that feeling? Maybe the feeling was of fullness in your heart, can you recreate that?
Allow your focus to move to that moment and if you are able, grab a pen and paper and write out that memory and the sensations and feelings allowing it to fill your heart and your mind.
Once you are at this point it is a good time to start taking in your surroundings slowly. A great technique is 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.
5– Focus on 5 things you can see in your environment, what caught your eye, why did it catch your eye, what makes them special, what makes them unique and beautiful? Concentrate on them and appreciate them, study them.
4-Focus on 4 things you can touch or feel. The clothing you are wearing, the temperature in the room, the floor beneath your feet, or perhaps the pressure from squeezing something. Focus on the sensation on your skin, warm or cold, soft or rough, light or heavy?
3– Focus on the sounds around you. Do you hear birds chirping outside or the hum of a refrigerator, perhaps complete silence? Listen to your breathing and focus on each inhale and exhale as you breathe nice deep, slow breaths.
2– Focus on things you can smell whether it be the smell of a candle you light or even the smell of your own skin. Do the scents smell so sweet or spicy, fresh or perfumey? Do the smells make your mouth water or inspire any feelings or memories?
1– Focus on taste. Take a sip of cold water and feel the coolness as it slips through your mouth down your throat to your tummy. Or perhaps have a hot cup of tea try to decipher the taste and take notice of the notes of flavour. Eat a piece of chocolate and allow it to melt in your mouth, enjoy the sweet chocolatey taste.
What to do during an anxiety attack overview
In order to understand what to do during an anxiety attack, we took a look at what an anxiety attack feels like and what it may look like to someone witnessing one. This is important information because it teaches us that is something others experience and that it will end and it will be ok.
The second part of understanding what to do during an anxiety attack is to understand some of the causes. This is important so that we can learn our triggers and find ways to prevent future attacks.
We discussed the apply pressure technique as a strategy for what to do during an anxiety attack as it can help distract us from the thoughts and focus on one thing only allowing the racing thoughts to die down.
Strategy #2 for what to do during an anxiety attack was similar in the focus that it was using feelings again to distract and refocus.
Breathing was our final strategy for what to do during an anxiety attack and I choose it to be the last one because I personally wanted to share other strategies first since being told to breathe can often increase anxiety. Remember what to do during an anxiety attack when you are watching and encourage mimicry.
We then discussed a bit more about what to do during an anxiety attack when you are witnessing one. Please remember that your relationship and the present situation must be assessed and that you must ALWAYS ASK first.
Lastly, we discussed what to do during an anxiety attack once we have gained some focus. We discussed focusing on a happy, joy-filled experience as well as using the 5,4,3,2,1 technique.
If you would like to learn more about retraining your mind to thinking more positively I think you might like our Positive Thinking Survival Kit article and our How to retrain your mind to nurture positivity article.
I also created a Happiness Journal and ebook that may be helpful to those of you who feel anxiety is leading you to a place where happiness is few and far between. You can find the Happiness Journal and ebook set here.
I hope this helps you find the right strategy for what to do during an anxiety attack and that you are to manage them much better. Thank you so much for reading I hope you share this with others that may need it too.
Remebr you are not alone and that it will pass! Best wishes.
Take care and stay safe
Living A Boss Life