What to do when you're hit by a panic attack

Image 1 of 2

One minute you're fine, the next your heart is pounding, your palms are sweating, and you can't catch your breath.  This is what a panic attack can feel like.

"Panic attacks are extremely common," says Emory internist Dr. Sharon Bergquist.

These kind of episodes of extreme, overwhelming fear can often cause physical symptoms, Bergquist says.  

So, many of us may not realize we're having a panic attack.

"Because the first thought when you're having trouble catching your breath, and your heart is racing, is that you've got a medical condition," says Dr. Bergquist.  "You think that you've got heart problems, or something is dreadfully wrong is going on inside your body."

Instead, most panic attacks triggered by by a sudden, severe anxiety.  

Some people are biologically predisposed to an anxiety disorder.

Others simply become overwhelmed.

But how do you stop the feeling you're losing control?

Start by trying to control you're breathing, Dr. Bergquist says. 

"So if you're got nowhere to go and there are people around you, just take a few deep breaths," she says. "That helps relax your muscles, it lowers you heart rate, it lowers your blood pressure."

If deep breathing isn't helping, Dr. Bergquist says try distracting yourself.

"Think of something funny, something to switch your mind away from just letting the stress response escalate," she says. 

Sometimes, just taking a quick 5 minute walk, preferably outdoors, can help.

"Walking takes you out of that stressful situations," Bergquist explains. "It helps you release those endorphins. And when you go back into that same situation, you have a different perspective."

Panic attacks usually pass almost as quickly as they set in.  They typically last no more than ten minutes.  

You just have to push through them.

"And when you recognize that, instead of thinking worse case scenario, just try and calm yourself down," says Dr. Bergquist. "Tell yourself you're okay, everything is going to be okay."

NEXT ARTICLE: Athens newborn recovering after heart surgery