Another way to test yourself is by trying a distraction technique. Pick an object in the room — like a houseplant or something that has a lot of different angles — and focus your attention on it. Notice variations in texture, shape and color. Trace the lines of the object with your eyes.
“If you notice you’re starting to calm down and your shortness of breath is getting better, then it’s probably anxiety related,” Erickson says.
One final way you can tell the two apart is by how quickly your symptoms show up. Did they develop gradually over time, and did things like a cough appear first? Or did your symptoms come on suddenly?
“An anxiety attack will come out of the blue and you won’t be feeling ill before that; you may feel tense or stressed but you won’t have muscle aches or a runny nose or a cough,” she explains.
What to do now
So you’ve checked your temperature and you have a fever. Or you don’t have a fever but you have other symptoms, like a cough. You’re still not certain if you have anxiety or something else.
At this point, it would be a good idea to contact your doctor and see what advice they offer. If you do have something besides a panic attack going on, you don’t want to delay getting help. And even if you’re pretty certain it’s anxiety but still aren’t 100% sure, getting reassurance from a medical expert could be helpful.
If, however, you’re convinced that you’re dealing with a panic attack, here are a few things you can do to reign your anxiety in.
Remind yourself this will pass
When you’re actively panicking, it can feel like it will go on forever. But it won’t.
“In the middle of a panic attack, one thing to remind yourself of in that moment is that, yes it’s uncomfortable, but it will pass,” Erickson says.
Erickson recommends finding ways to distract yourself out of panic. This could mean looking closely at an object and studying its lines and colors, or it could be holding ice cubes in your hands and focusing on the sudden temperature change.
If you focus hard enough on the distraction, it will help pull your mind out of its anxiety spiral.
Try square breathing
Square breathing, sometimes called box breathing, is a breathing technique that aims to steady your intake and outtake of breath. Anxiety often makes us hyperventilate, which then contributes to more anxiety, creating a vicious cycle.
To try square breathing, breathe in for four seconds, hold your breath for four seconds, breathe out for four seconds, then hold again for four. Keep repeating this pattern until you notice you’re feeling less tense.
Schedule worry time
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by anxious thoughts, it’s worth scheduling yourself some worry time.
Trying to avoid or deny worry isn’t going to make it go away; in fact, that often makes it worse. So set aside some time each day as designated “worry time” where you’ll allow your mind to go down as many panicked rabbit holes as it wants.
Set a timer for ten minutes or whatever feels right to you, worry for that amount of time, and then when the timer goes off get back to your day.
Start a worry journal
If worry time isn’t doing it for you, try starting a worry journal where you write down all your fears and concerns. You can set a designated time to do this, such as before bed or when you wake up.
Try not to write in it constantly throughout the day. The point is to get your worries out of your system then close the journal and move on to other tasks.
Try relaxation techniques
There are a bunch of relaxation techniques therapists teach their clients for easing muscle tension and other physical symptoms of anxiety in a short amount of time. These include things like progressive muscle relaxation or deep breathing.
Give one or several of them a try and see if they help. Sometimes relieving your physical anxiety symptoms will also help your anxious thoughts go away.
Give yourself credit
Sometimes, feeling anxious or having panic attacks can make someone ashamed or embarrassed or feel like they don’t have their life under control. Those feelings are understandable, but do your best to banish them.
Focus on the fact that you recognize the problem and are working on getting help. Don’t try to be perfect; just focus on the fact that you’re making progress.
“Everyone is doing as well as they can right now. We should all take credit for that,” Erickson says.