Take A Breath

Take A Breath

One of the 10 most influential therapists of the past quarter-century, John Gottman, states, “Empathy and understanding must precede advice.” Oftentimes, when people share their dilemmas, we try to give them quick-fixes and solutions when instead they are searching for compassion and empathy; we present them with solutions thinking we are helping them, when we may be giving them incorrect information. What seems like conventional wisdom could be scientifically incorrect, even when given with the best intentions. People look for understanding and caring, as Gottman suggests.

A generally underrated condition, ‘panic attack’ is a term that is thrown around loosely to describe a feeling of panic and distress a person experiences when something happens unexpectedly. We frequently hear people say, ‘If I forget to take my homework to class tomorrow I’ll have a panic attack,’ or, ‘If my favorite T-shirt shrinks I’ll have a panic attack.’ While these situations may be extremely distressing for some of us or even cause panic attacks, it eludes the true meaning of what a real panic attack may feel like.

Undervaluing panic attacks might prevent us from empathizing with people who actually suffer from them. A panic attack, as described by DSM-V, is an “abrupt surge of intense fear or intense discomfort,” accompanied by at least 4 of a given list of physical symptoms of which include accelerated heart rate, sweating, trembling, and sensations of shortness of breath. The Huffington Post attempted to bring to light some corporal aspects of panic attacks through descriptions of its  Facebook and Twitter communities:

“I can’t stand up, I can’t speak. All I feel is an intense amount of pain all over, like something is just squeezing me into this little ball. If it is really bad I can’t breathe, I start to hyperventilate and I throw up.”

“It feels like my throat is being choked. My arms start tingling because I’m breathing shallowly and not getting enough oxygen, which of course panics me more.”

When these panic attacks become recurrent and unexpected, a person may be suffering from a panic disorder.

People with panic disorders are usually tormented by the fear of these attacks repeating, which may wreck their peace of mind and inhibit them from certain activities (Mayo Clinic). Chores they take for granted may be interrupted by panic attacks, impeding their desire and capacity to carry them out. Sarah, a mother of three, described how panic disorder distressed and altered her life: “One day I was standing in a queue at the bank with a friend and suddenly everything went hazy. I can remember my friend shaking me and asking if I was okay. I felt like something was really wrong, I just needed to get home. My friend was crying with fear. That was my biggest mistake, as the only place I felt safe than was home and it became my prison for 5 years. I was forced by my family to seek medical help and my [general practitioner] made me feel I was overreacting. Asking for help every time I needed shopping was degrading. The worst day of my life came when my daughter fell and broke her wrist and she was terrified and crying and I had to watch her being taken to hospital by someone else as the panic had too big [a] hold on me.”

Panic attacks may affect people mentally, physically, or emotionally. Understanding, love, and care can make them feel like they have space to heal and someone to heal for. Sarah’s personal experience coincides with this:

“There is also nothing like the feeling of watching friends and family go on holiday and knowing I couldn’t take my children anywhere. My eldest son couldn’t bare to see me suffering and moved out at 16 to live with his girlfriend, but my other two children never once asked anything of me. We spent many hours having great times at home, playing games and watching movies. They were the reason I was determined to recover.”

It may not always be obvious when someone is experiencing a panic attack, but if they do share with you, you may be inclined to assist them in some way. It is crucial that legitimate guidance be given. About 6 million people suffer from panic disorder in America (ADAA), the majority of whom experience hyperventilation during their attacks. According to Mark Tyrrell, a therapist trainer for 15 years, 60% of panic attacks are accompanied by hyperventilation. Literally translating to ‘over-breathing’, they could be a cause or an effect of panic attacks. When it occurs, the person enduring it may feel like they are short of breath because there isn’t enough oxygen in the body. However, the contrary is true– hyperventilation is a symptom of too much oxygen in the body (Tyrell).

Panicking people are often told to “calm down” and “take deep breaths,” but for someone hyperventilating during a panic attack deep breathing is a bad idea. Symptoms like dizziness and numbness occur, making the person feel like they’re suffocating; thus “taking deep breathes” would further exacerbate the problem by increasing the oxygen in the body (Meuret). A new form of therapy called capnometry-assisted respiratory training (CART) therapy teaches patients to take shallow breaths and has been found efficient in assuaging panic symptoms. Thus, the fitting action in such a situation would be to take quick, shallow breaths to balance the carbon dioxide and oxygen contents in the body.

Panic disorder can be overwhelming and debilitating for the person who suffers from it. While adopting new breathing techniques and finding the right therapy style is essential, those with panic disorders need tenderness and support of family and friends in order to heal.


Holmes, L. (2014, October 21). This Is What A Panic Attack Physically Feels Like. Retrieved April 30, 2017, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/10/21/panic-attack-feeling_n_5977998.html

Chapter 16. Panic Disorder. (n.d.). Retrieved April 30, 2017, from http://psychiatryonline.org/doi/full/10.1176/appi.books.9781585625048.gg16

Pappas, S. (2010, December 26). To Stave Off Panic, Don’t Take a Deep Breath. Retrieved April 30, 2017, from http://www.livescience.com/9204-stave-panic-deep-breath.html

Part 4: Panic attack symptoms – Hyperventilation (over-breathing). (n.d.). Retrieved April 30, 2017, from http://www.panic-attacks.co.uk/course/4-panic-attack-symptoms-hyperventilation-over-breathing/

Panic attacks and panic disorder. (2015, May 19). Retrieved April 30, 2017, from http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/panic-attacks/basics/definition/con-20020825

Sarah’s Anxiety Story. (2014, October 01). Retrieved April 30, 2017, from https://www.nopanic.org.uk/sarahs-anxiety-story/

Facts & Statistics. (n.d.). Retrieved April 30, 2017, from https://www.adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics

Nikita Kohli

I come from a family of doctors. Growing up surrounded by doctors, of all the things I heard at the dinner table the one thing that repeatedly peaked my interest was mental health. This encouraged me to shadow a psychiatrist and observe patients with schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, bi-polar disorder, autism and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. As a health science major, I want to work towards removing the stigma and misconceptions associated with mental illnesses, thus preventing people with mental illnesses to feel alienated from society. I still remember when the psychiatrist taught me to say “people with schizophrenia” rather than “schizophrenic people”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

[ Back To Top ]