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Understanding Panic Attacks

Coping with Panic Attacks

Be sure to seek medical attention if what you are feeling might be a heart attack.
Be sure to seek medical attention if what you are feeling might be a heart attack.
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A panic attack can be the most terrifying experience of your life. But even if you can't prevent an attack, you can control your reaction to it.

Breathing techniques help to relieve panic attacks. People who experience panic attacks usually breathe with their chest, but they should breathe from their diaphragms. If you experience panic attacks, practice breathing from your diaphragm to strengthen those muscles. Here's a breathing exercise you can try, from


  1. Lie on your back with pillows under your knees and head
  2. Put one hand on your stomach and another on your chest
  3. Slowly breathe in with your stomach rising, but with your chest still
  4. Slowly breathe out as you clench your stomach muscles

To make sure you're really breathing from your diaphragm, put a weight, such as a book, on your stomach, and watch it rise and fall. After you get better at this kind of breathing, you'll be able to do it more easily whenever an attack strikes.

In addition to breathing techniques, other steps can help you get through an attack. Mentally changing your perspective on the experience will help you conquer it [source: Anxiety and Stress Disorder Institute]. First, acknowledge that you are having a panic attack. This will help you accept it and conquer it. Repeat to yourself that you are alright and the attack will pass. Think of it as a wave that will crest and will subside. Mentally accepting the attack will stop it from getting worse.

If you're merely a spectator and realize that someone around you is having a panic attack, stay positive and encouraging as you talk that person through the experience. Remind him or her that everything is all right. Advise the person experiencing the attack to breathe slowly and deeply with his or her diaphragm.

Given the similarity of the symptoms, it's very common for people to fear they are having a heart attack during a panic attack. Since Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, accounting for 29 percent of deaths, it's important to not take any chances.

The American Heart Association (AHA) offers a few tips to recognize a heart attack. The most common symptom of a heart attack is chest pain -- pressure on the center of your chest that either persists longer than a couple of minutes or goes away and then returns. This pressure can be accompanied by shortness of breath, pain in the arms or pain in other areas of your upper body. You may feel nauseous or faint, as well. The AHA advises that if you are in doubt, call 911 for emergency assistance. An ambulance can usually get you to the hospital much faster than a friend or family member can drive you.

To learn more about panic attacks and panic disorder, find links on the following page.

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More Great Links


  • "Ask the Experts: Panic Attack or Heart Attack?" Anxiety Disorders Association of America. (Feb. 21. 2008)
  • Bakewell, S. "The Automatic Nervous System." Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge. (Feb. 25, 2008)
  • Bourne, Edmund J. "The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook." New Harbinger Publications: 2005. (Feb. 21, 2008)
  • Berman, Carol W. 100 Questions & Answers About Panic Disorder. 2005 (March 12, 2007)
  • Campbell, Nancy. "Panic Disorder." Capstone Press: 2001. (Feb. 21, 2008)
  • "Dealing with Panic Attacks." Anxiety and Stress Disorder Institute of Maryland. (Feb. 21, 2008)
  • "Diaphragmatic breathing." (Feb. 21, 2008)
  • "DSM-IV Diagnostic Criteria for Panic Disorder With or Without Agoraphobia." (Feb. 21, 2008)
  • "Emotion-Regulating Protein Lacking in Panic Disorder." National Institute of Mental Health. (Feb. 21, 2008)
  • "Heart Attack, Stroke and Cardiac Arrest Warning Signs." American Heart Association. (Feb. 21, 2008)
  • "Heart Disease." Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (Feb. 21, 2008)
  • "Let's Talk Facts About Panic Disorder." American Psychiatric Association. (Feb. 21, 2008)
  • "Panic Attacks, Panic Disorder and Agoraphobia: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment." (Feb. 21, 2008)