For the last several years, panic attacks have been part of my life.
I typically average two or three a month, although I’ve gone months without having one at all, and they usually take place at home. When one starts at home, I know I can access my lavender essential oil, weighted blanket, and medication if I need it.
Within minutes, my heart rate slows and my breathing normalizes.
But having a panic attack in public? That’s a completely different scenario.
I’ve been known to experience panic on airplanes, which is a fairly common place of panic in general. But they also happen in totally unexpected places, like the grocery store when I’m overwhelmed by tight aisles and crowds. Or even a dolphin-watching cruise when the waves became unbearably choppy.
In my mind, past public panic attacks stick out because they felt more intense and I wasn’t prepared.
Dr. Kristin Bianchi, a psychologist at Maryland’s Center for Anxiety & Behavioral Change, believes that public panic attacks do pose their own unique set of challenges.
“It tends to be more distressing to people to have panic attacks in public than at home because they have easier access to calming activities and people in their homes than they would in a public venue,” she says.
“Moreover, at home, people can experience their panic attacks ‘in private’ without fear of someone else noticing their distress and wondering what might be wrong,” she adds.
In addition to feeling unprepared, I also had to contend with feeling shame and humiliation of having a panic attack in the midst of strangers. And it seems I’m not alone in this.
Stigma and embarrassment, Bianchi explains, can be a big component of public panic attacks. She describes clients revealing that they fear “drawing attention to themselves or ‘making a scene’” during a public panic attack.
“They often report worrying that others might think that they’re ‘crazy’ or ‘unstable.’”
But Bianchi stresses that it’s important to remember that the symptoms of a panic attack might not even be noticeable to other people.
“In other cases, an individual’s distress might be more evident to an outsider, but that doesn’t mean that the [stranger] will be jumping to terrible conclusions about [the person experiencing the panic attack]. Observers might simply think that the sufferer isn’t feeling well, or that they’re upset and having a bad day,” she adds.
So what should you do if you do find yourself having a panic attack in public? We asked Bianchi to share five tips to navigate them in a healthy way. Here’s what she suggests:
1. Keep a “calm down kit” in your bag or car
If you know you’re prone to panic attacks that take place outside of your home, come prepared with a small, mobile kit.
Dr. Bianchi recommends including items that can help you slow your breathing and connect with the present. These items may include:
- smooth stones
- essential oils
- a beaded bracelet or necklace to touch
- a small bottle of bubbles to blow
- coping statements written on index cards
- a coloring book
2. Get yourself to a safe place
A panic attack can leave your body feeling paralyzed, so it can be tough to get out of a crowd or to a safe, quiet spot. When this happens, do your best to move your body and locate a place that’s relatively free of noise and has fewer stimuli than a large public venue.
“This could mean stepping outside where there’s more space and fresh air, sitting in an empty office if you’re in a work setting, moving to an empty row on public transportation, or putting on noise-canceling headphones if it’s not possible to find a quieter space in any of these settings,” explains Bianchi.
When you’re in that new space, or have your noise-canceling headphones on, Bianchi also advises to take slow, deep breaths and use other coping tools to manage the panic attack.
3. Ask for help if you need it
Your panic attack might be so severe that you feel like you can’t handle it on your own. If you’re alone, it’s perfectly fine to ask someone nearby for help.
“There’s not one prescribed way to ask for help during a panic attack. Because the average person on the street probably wouldn’t know what to do in response to a request to help someone having a panic attack, it can be helpful to write down on a card ahead of time what you might potentially need from a stranger in such an event,” advises Bianchi.
“That way, you can consult this list to jog your memory if you were to need help from an unknown person during a panic attack.”
Bianchi adds that, when making a request for help, it’s most effective to explain up front that you’re having a panic attack and you need some assistance. Then state specifically what type of assistance you need, such as borrowing a phone, hailing a cab, or asking for directions to the nearest medical facility.
Safety first If you ask a stranger for help, make sure that you’re in a safe and well-lit area with other folks present.
4. Soothe yourself just as you would at home
If you’re in public, turn to your regular coping mechanisms for help, Bianchi says.
She names some of the most effective methods as:
- slowing down your breathing (you can use a mobile app to help you relax)
- breathing from your diaphragm
- bringing yourself into the present moment
- repeat coping statements internally
5. Stay where you are
Lastly, Dr. Bianchi recommends against returning straight home in the event of a panic attack in a public place. Instead, she encourages clients to remain where they are and engage in any acts of self-care that are available.
These might include:
- drinking a soothing warm or cool beverage
- having a snack to replenish blood sugar
- taking a leisurely walk
- reaching out to a supportive person
- reading or drawing
Using these techniques can help remove the power of a public panic attack
Panic attacks in public can be scary, especially if you’re unprepared and alone. Knowing techniques for how to navigate one, if and when one happens, however, can mean removing the power of a public panic attack.
Consider becoming familiar with the techniques listed above. And for more information on how to navigate a panic attack, head here.
Shelby Deering is a lifestyle writer based in Madison, Wisconsin, with a master’s degree in journalism. She specializes in writing about wellness and for the past 13 years has contributed to national outlets including Prevention, Runner’s World, Well+Good, and more. When she’s not writing, you’ll find her meditating, searching for new organic beauty products, or exploring local trails with her husband and corgi, Ginger.