How to Survive a Panic Attack in Public

If you’ve never had a panic attack, close your eyes for a moment and relive one of mine. They usually start in my body, and I get a sensation that I’m suddenly on a boat, like the ground’s rolling beneath me. Then my heart speeds up, I can’t breathe evenly, my hands start shaking, my stomach feels nauseatingly acidic and my mind goes into overdrive.

Panic attacks—defined by the Mayo Clinic as “a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause”—can happen anytime, anywhere. Feeling like this is inconvenient for a lot of reasons, but it feels especially hopeless when you are out in public: at work, out with friends, shopping alone, on the bus, etc. You need to be able to acknowledge that panic, recognize it for what it is, save it inside yourself and then let it out when you get home and can completely fall to pieces without judgement and in your own time.

If you suffer from regular panic attacks, I would strongly suggest you try therapy. Although there hasn’t been much conclusive research into the causation and treatment of panic disorder, studies have shown that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the most effective, long-term treatment available. I know regular sessions definitely helped me. In addition to therapy, I found other ways to help my symptoms. So, while I don’t consider these tips to be the end-all-cure-all for panic attacks, they will help in a pinch, especially if you find yourself in an environment where you don’t feel entirely comfortable with sharing your mental health situation, or are out and about by yourself. Here are a few steps that I take every time I feel panicky in public.

Headphones

Get noise-canceling (or at least noise-reducing) headphones. When you’re feeling panicky, put them on but don’t turn on any music. Just focus on your breathing. Focus on filling your belly rather than your chest; send the breath down and out. If you’re at work, sit at your desk, pretending to check your email or type something random into an Excel sheet, and you’ll look like you’re doing something. If you’re out in public, find somewhere where you can sit for a moment. Try to keep each inhale through your nose and each exhale through your mouth as even in length as possible. Deep heavy breathing might draw some weird looks from those sitting near you so if you’re self-conscious about drawing attention to yourself, try to breathe as quietly as you can with your headphones on, concentrating on the sound. Repeat until you feel more solid.

Related: Surviving Anxiety in the Workplace

Hydrate

Gulp freezing-cold water. Concentrate on following that icy feeling down your throat, through your chest and into your stomach. Basically this is just another way to distract yourself from focusing on your panic. Plus it will help give you a bit of a wake up.

You Can Do It

If you can, lock yourself in a private bathroom for about the length of a poo and give yourself a pep talk. (This can also work in empty stairwells, on a deserted train platform—basically anywhere you can achieve some level of alone.) Speak softly, and kindly, and tell yourself that you are ok. You won’t feel like this forever; this will pass. You are okay. No one is judging you. You are not failing at your health somehow by experiencing this; it’s okay to get overwhelmed.

Write It Out

Do a teeny free write. Open up a Word doc and just write for five straight minutes about everything you’re feeling. For those five minutes, think about the immediate probable causes of this panic: maybe you’re nervous about an upcoming presentation at work or maybe you’re worried about a friend or maybe you regret something you said to your partner earlier. However ‘big’ or ‘small’ it seems to you, write it out. Once it’s all put into words, it doesn’t seem quite so unmanageable. Then you can choose to delete it—which feels oddly satisfying—or return to it later, when you have more time to give these things pause.

ASMR

For those who aren’t familiar with what this is or what ASMR stands for, I recommend watching this (make sure you are wearing headphones). I’d also recommend these if you have trouble falling asleep. Soothing words of nonsense can be incredibly pleasant and relaxing.

Related: What is ASMR?

Puppies to the Rescue

Look at something you find incredibly cute. Science has told us this actually helps boost focus and productivity, so you don’t have to feel guilty about it. Look at this guy—he’s basically happiness incarnate (In-canine-ate?). I guarantee some of the immediate feelings of panic will subside.

There’s an App For That

Try playing a game like Flowy. The whole premise of the app is to distract you from your panic and to focus your energy on steadying your breathing. Admittedly this one is kind of difficult if you’re at work where you’re not supposed to be blatantly not working, so duck into an empty meeting room or somewhere that’s quiet to play a few rounds until you’re feeling more yourself.

Calming Smells

Try keeping a small bottle of your favorite essential oil in your bag—something calming like lavender or clary sage—to help you relax as you steady your breathing. You can also daub a bit on your wrists for discreet aromatherapy.

Valerian

Incorporate valerian into your daily routine. This flowering plant acts like a natural sedative, and has been known to help with insomnia, stress relief and anxiety. For more information on how to take valerian, check out this article here.

I know it can feel scary and lonely and terrifying to have a panic attack, especially when you’re out in public. I know it can be hard not to immediately try to belittle or discredit your own feelings: it’s silly to stress out about a party, I shouldn’t be this worried about the wording of that email, why can’t I pinpoint my feelings, etc. But know that this is a temporary situation, and that it’s okay to struggle sometimes.

Our health is constantly evolving, and looking after it can be hard. Listening to our bodies and responding with patient kindness can be hard. But whatever you’re going through, wherever you are, know that you are resilient.

Written by Eve Tyler

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86 comments

Diane Wayne
Diane Wayne4 months ago

Valerian root works really well. So does Passion Flower, Holy Basil, and Peace/Calm herbs in Chinese Medicine. Way better than icky pharmaceutical valium. Bach Flowers have a number of remedies, too.

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christine s
christine s5 months ago

I suffered from panic attacks from the age of 11yrs untill 27 , nothing helped ---nothing at all I just had to retreat to somwhere I felt safe and wait it out ,afterwards I wanted to cuddle myself in a blanket and have a cup of tea . Then one day they does stopped ,I have no idea why or how but they are terrifying .

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Tara W
Tara W5 months ago

Breathing. It all comes down to remembering to breathe.

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Danuta W
Danuta W5 months ago

Thanks for posting

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Stephanie s
Stephanie s5 months ago

Thank you

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caroline lord
caroline lord5 months ago

cold soaked valerian for depression

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Janis K
Janis K5 months ago

Thanks for sharing.

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Janis K
Janis K5 months ago

Thanks for sharing.

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Paulo R
Paulo Reeson5 months ago

ty

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Paulo R
Paulo Reeson5 months ago

ty

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