More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
How To Survive a Panic Attack
by Scott Davis
Thursday, February 1st, 2007

Note: If you are having a panic attack right now, get help. Call a friend, call your therapist or doctor, or even call your local crisis center (the number is on the inside of the front cover of your phone book). Call someone. Don?t try to ride a panic attack out alone.

Panic attacks suck.

I can remember my worst one like it was yesterday. A friend of ours had given us a pet snake as a gift (long story), and one day, the snake somehow got out of his cage.

And disappeared.

We started looking for him, but we couldn?t find him anywhere and I began to panic. Thoughts were rushing through my head; ?What if he got into the ductwork?? (we lived in a condo at the time), ?what if he dies somewhere where we can?t reach him?? I completely lost it. I couldn?t breathe, my heart was pounding and I got dizzy. All I could think about was all the horrible things that could happen if we couldn?t find that snake.

We eventually found him under the fridge and stuck him back in his cage. (note: If you ever find yourself in the unfortunate situation where you need to find a snake, always check under the fridge. 99% of the time that?s where they go) But I was badly rattled, and I was anxious for days afterwards. I jumped at noises, and I worried about everything. It was clear that I needed a better way to survive panic attacks.

What?s a Panic Attack?
I spoke to my therapist about the panic attack, and she explained that panic attacks are ?misplaced? fear responses. Here?s how they work:

In a normal ?fear? situation such as an animal attack, our brain responds by causing us to panic (?Arg! A tiger! Run!?) so that we will be able to either run from the danger or to fight it.

In a panic attack, the brain misinterprets ?scary, but not dangerous? information,(?Arg! I missed the bus!), as ?dangerous? information, (?Now I?m going to get fired for sure!?) which then triggers a panic reaction and kicks the body into survival mode. The result is a panic attack. (Note: Since I wrote this article, it has been brought to my attention that some forms of panic attacks can emerge without any stimulus whatsoever. I?m not sure if the techniques that I describe below will work for these types of panic attacks, does anyone have any experiences that they can share?)

Panic attacks are survivable. The trick is to use calming exercises to relax your body so that it comes out of ?survival mode? and you can deal with the ?scary, but not dangerous? information appropriately.

My therapist taught me two exercises that worked wonders for me. They are Square Breathing, and Grounding. Today I want to talk about ?Square Breathing.?

Square Breathing
"Square breathing" is an easy-to-learn and easy-to-use technique for quickly reducing stress. It isn?t a long-term solution for panic attacks, but it will help you to get calmed down so you can assess your situation. Also, you can do it in public, so it?s very useful if you have a panic attack in a public place and you can?t get somewhere private.

What you will need
A stopwatch or a clock; or a friend to time you.

How it works
This trick takes four minutes.

  1. Begin by slowly breathing in for four seconds. (It?s helpful to count 4 Mississippis)
  2. Hold your breath for four seconds
  3. Slowly breathe out for four seconds
  4. wait four seconds (don?t breathe in)
  5. Repeat steps 1 - 4
Keep doing this for four minutes.


This trick is called square breathing because an easy way to remember it is to picture each step as a side on a square, and then work your way around the square, beginning at ?breathe in.?

I like square breathing because it?s quick and it works, and you can do it anywhere. It doesn?t just work for panic attacks either. I use square breathing to manage stress, or just when I want to relax. It?s a great tool to have. Try it out the next time you feel yourself getting stressed
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