Nobody enjoys having a panic attack…
But they're particularly awful when they happen at school. On top of experiencing all of those physical symptoms - shortness of breath, tense muscles, pounding heart - you're worried about how other people will respond to you.
One of the most helpful first steps is to find a calm area, alone, and go there.
This can be as simple as leaving to use the restroom and finding a stall to sit in - you can always let your teacher know you had to leave for the restroom, and few people will want any details if that's your excuse.
In the moment, try to ground yourself.
I like to use the 5 Senses Scavenger Hunt - name one thing that you see, one thing that you hear, one thing that you smell, one thing that you can physically touch, and check in with how your mouth tastes. This helps bring you back into your body and the moment.
Next, try focusing on slowing your breathing.
Try breathing in through your nose for three slow counts, pause, and breathe out of your mouth for four slow counts. You can even count to yourself to keep focus: "In one two three, out four five six seven."
If breathing feels totally impossible…
just focus on breathing out through your mouth. Your body will naturally take in more oxygen, even if it feels shaky.
Final cool down:
Before heading back to the classroom, splash your face with cool water, and grab some from the water cooler or drinking fountain yourself. Really notice how the cool water feels on your face and down your throat. Connecting with those physical experiences will help to calm your body even further.
Practice before you need it.
Try taking a bathroom break in your different classes at different times of the day to see how easy it is to leave, and how much time you can budget for future panic attacks. By having a plan and steps ready to go, you’ll feel more prepared to handle the panic attack.
When to get counseling:
I’m of the mindset that any college or higshcool student who has panic attacks should be meeting with a therapist, and ideally with a therapist who specializes in anxiety work with your age group.
The above steps will help manage the symptoms, but they’re not really helping you deal with any underlying cause of this anxiety. It’s like having strep throat and eating soup. The soup is going to help you feel better, and nutrition of course is going to help with the cure… but a bacterial infection needs antibiotics to be cured efficiently. You’ll probably feel better with the soup, and you’ll feel better having a plan for your panic attacks. But to feel better sooner, you need to be meeting with a professional.
Kelsey Torgerson, MSW, LCSW is a top-rated anxiety specialist in St. Louis, working with kids, teens and college students to help them manage their overwhelming thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. She works in Clayton with students throughout Creve Couer, Town and Country, Ladue, University City, Midtown, and Webster Groves. You can reach her through her brand new contact page - and if you’re a college student who gets a little anxious about reaching out, she’s happy to first talk with a parent instead.