Mental health: coping with feelings of panic

Panic is like a wave. We must wait for the feelings to pass. But there are some actions that can help. Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

Panic is anxiety, escalated to the point where there is serious short-term interruption to peaceful and orderly functioning.  Humans panic when their bodily systems become locked into an alarmed response.  Once a panic attack gets going, a person can feel out of control, as though their body has taken on a life of its own.  Symptoms are sometimes so uncomfortable that sufferers can believe they are having a heart attack.

Symptoms of panic include:

  • consciousness – feeling of dread
  • upper body – ringing in ears, dry mouth, shortness of breath, choking sensation, racing heartbeat, chest pain
  • lower body – nausea, churning stomach, need to go to the toilet
  • whole body – feeling faint, dizziness, trembling, shaky limbs, feeling disconnected from body
  • skin and extremities – numbness, pins and needles, tingling fingers
  • temperature – sweating, hot flushes, chills


Feelings, as humans usually describe them, are split into positive and negative.  Panic is categorised as a set of negative feelings, where a person senses that something bad is happening, or is going to happen.  Evolutionary origins include the threat response, where, in the presence of danger, the body prepares to fight, run away, or shut down temporarily.

The problem here is that, once they have started, the feelings are not completely within your control.  A different pattern of neurotransmitter function takes place, involving , for instance, serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid).  (You can read a little more about chemicals and theories of panic disorder here.)

So, if you are in the middle of a panic attack, your body is already somewhat locked in to the experience.  Thus, waiting for the panic to pass, although it sounds defeatist, is pretty good advice. 


Thoughts are regarded as different from feelings.  While feelings are strongly linked to pleasure and pain, thoughts can operate relatively independently from extreme pleasure and pain.  You can see evidence of this in children: they can be feeling distressed one minute, but then stop crying and focus if their attention is led towards a conceptual thought or an observation.

Adults, too, have this capacity to be led away from extreme pleasure-pain responses with conceptual thought.  Asking a simple question of someone suffering a panic attack can begin to reduce symptoms, because, in order to answer the question, the sufferer has to engage their attention in a different way.

Under panic, the conceptual mind temporarily becomes a slave to the nervous system, imagining the worst, and taking fears to their furthest conclusions.  The trick is to unharness the thinking mind from the immediate feelings, and give it something else to attend to.


If you are trying to manage your own feelings of panic, suggestions include:

  • taking out a piece of paper and listing something, anything (shopping list, friend list, to-do list, etc.)
  • performing a procedural behaviour (e.g. cleaning shoes, cooking, playing a game)
  • talking to a friend
  • taking exercise involving the sequential following of a route (e.g. walk, run, cycle ride)
  • a body scan meditation (you can listen to one here)

All of these activities engage the mind’s sequential thinking ability in a non-threatening way, and release the conceptual mind from the tyranny of the current feelings of panic.  They also add procedural certainty to events, which encourage the body’s systems to return to a more functional state.


Panic is an extreme, short-term, body-alarm response which interferes with peaceful and orderly functioning.

Feelings will be hard to control during a panic attack, because the body’s ‘negative alarm system’ has already taken over.  We may have to wait for the feelings to pass, like a wave.

Thoughts, however, can be influenced in order to reduce panic.  The aim is to undertake an activity which engages peaceful focus.

Simple procedures work best (e.g. listing on paper, cleaning, playing a simple game, talking, exercising, or body scan meditation).  These engage our sequential thinking processes, mildly, but enough to free them from negative feelings.