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How to Manage Panic Attacks During Your Freshman Year In College

Your heart is pounding and it hurts to breathe. It’s impossible to sit still and you feel like you might throw up or pass out. Is it love? Nope, it’s your first day as a freshman in college. 

At Bumble, we know first hand how college life can seem like it’s all adventure, new friends, endless parties, and long awaited freedom. Sometimes, though, once you hit campus all that change at once can start to seem scary.

Natalie Geld, founder and CEO of MedNeuro, a breakthrough neuroscience and medical education enterprise, author, researcher, and all around badass, explains how to deal with your first day below: 

Separation from your support systems, like your family and close friends, and familiar surroundings can erupt sudden and overwhelming feelings of anxiety and doom. Welcome to the wonderful world of panic attacks.

First of all, we want you to know anxiety is common. If you understand how it works, you can use it to evolve your relationship with stress. My colleague, Dr. Nathan Munn, Instructor of Psychological Sciences at Helena College University of Montana, tells me he sees this level of anxiety often.

“When a person suffers a panic attack, they may feel like they’re losing their mind or suffocating. It’s frightening. It helps to change the way you think about extreme anxiety from a psychological to a biological basis. See, increased activity in a person’s ‘Locus Coeruleus’ – or LC – in the brain stem releases norepinephrine, which has an excitatory effect on most of the brain. LC is involved with physiological responses to stress and panic.” 

Norepinephrine is related to adrenalin. Instead of getting an adrenalin rush and feeling like a rock star, norepinephrine makes you experience panic attacks.

Dr. Munn explains: “We all have the fight or flight response, and panic attacks are the body’s natural responses gone haywire. When you think about them this way, it strips the feelings of their power.” 

So, how do we cope with panic attacks? Dr. Munn says to “use the Four R’s: recognize, revalue, relax, refocus.”

Recognize you’re having a panic attack. Learn to recognize when symptoms first appear – is your first symptom a pounding heart? Maybe you get nauseous, or your palms sweat. This is different for everyone, so start paying attention to your specific signs. 

Revalue these symptoms as “just a panic attack”. It’s not fun, but it’s not life-threatening either. Know you’re not going crazy. It sometimes helps to label panic attacks as being “hijacked” by your Locus Coeruleus.

Relax by taking slow deep breaths through your nose and exhaling through your mouth. Practice this now. Interestingly, people who suffer panic attacks tend to breath a little faster. This lowers CO2 levels, which worsen panic. Breathing slowly increases CO2 levels, thus reducing symptoms. 

Refocus on the task at hand: homework, talking in class, having a conversation, taking a walk, doing yoga, or whatever else helps you focus and stay in the moment. Panic attacks can make it seem like everything is falling apart, but when you ground yourself in what is actually happening by focusing on the world outside yourself right that second, it gives your body a chance to reset and see nothing terrible is happening. 

Avoid the temptation to drown your anxiety with that fourth shot of tequila. Sure, a buzz works short-term, but there can be (very) unpleasant side effects the next day. Besides, it doesn’t help you solve the root of the problem. 

Instead of inviting a hangover from hell, be an angel. It turns out altruism and participation in community service alleviates stress overall.

Feel free to seek social support and/or professional help, too. We know mental health stigma sucks, but anxiety is just a series of chemical imbalances. That’s a physical problem. Wouldn’t you seek help if you had strep throat or a broken leg? It should be the same exact thing with your mental health.

Take good care of U during your university years. We’re with you all the way.