Private, Student Life

Ask Ainsley: I just had my first panic attack. What do I do?

Dear Ainsley,

I just had my first panic attack after finding out that I’d failed a test, and it really scared me. What do I do to keep this from happening in the future? What resources are available to me? 


Perplexed About my Panic Attack (PAPA)

Dear PAPA,

First of all, thank you so much for your question. Often one of the hardest steps in dealing with a panic attack is coming forward and telling someone about what you’re going through. Before worrying about anything else, take a deep breath and try to remember that you are not alone—many other students have experienced the same thing you have. In fact, in a 2013 study of McGill Students, 51 per cent expressed some level of general anxiety and 79 per cent expressed feelings of academic distress. More recently, the Engineering Undergraduate Society (EUS) Wellness Survey found that seventy four per cent of its students find their large workload to be their biggest source of stress. With the overwhelm of midterms and the seemingly never-ending winter, it can be particularly difficult to remain optimistic. However, there are many tactics you can use and changes you can make in your lifestyle to help reduce your chance of experiencing another panic attack. There are also many resources at McGill and in Montreal to help you.

In the peak of a panic attack, it’s easy to feel like you are completely out of control. Know that this feeling is completely normal and it is ok to let yourself feel that way for a few minutes. However, once you feel like you can, there are a couple things that are helpful in bringing yourself back to reality. Try following the Five-Step Rule: Find five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one that you can taste. This trick allows you to observe your surroundings, which can ease you out of a cycle of negative thoughts. Another really helpful coping trick is to get outside, go for a walk, and breathe some fresh air. If the Five-Step Rule doesn’t work, try stepping outside or telling a friend that you need some help to calm down.

Although knowing what to do during the panic attack is vital, small lifestyle improvements can help preemptively decrease the occurrence of stress-induced panic attacks. Some self-care tips include watching what you’re consuming: Restricting your intake of caffeine, alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs really helps to lower stress levels. Studies have shown that consuming an excess of these substances greatly increases your chance of developing anxiety. Cutting back can be very difficult; when doing so, try taking small steps, like decreasing your intake of something by a small fraction per day. Most importantly, take time for yourself to do something you enjoy. Watching a movie, listening to music, or spending time with a loved one can be beneficial when you’re feeling alone or stressed out. These lifestyle changes are really helpful as they give you a break and allow you to shift your focus away from school in order to regain confidence and motivation for your studies.

If you find that you simply cannot handle this alone, fortunately, as students at McGill, there are many resources available to us. The McGill Mental Health Hub provides many different resources to address all the areas that could be causing you stress. The site’s screening test is aimed at helping you understand your mental health and find the options that are best for you out of the potentially-overwhelming totality that they provide. Please don’t forget that if you feel that you are in immediate danger, make sure to call 9-1-1 or, if you’re on campus, Campus Security at 514-398-3000. McGill Counselling Crisis Support also offers daytime counselling Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and McGill Mental Health Emergency Hours are from Monday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Both of these resources are found in the Brown Building. Outside of McGill, the Quebec Suicide Hotline also offers 24-hour support to those in crisis situations.  

If you believe your panic attack might have been rooted in academic stress, McGill offers resources for academic support. From speaking to an advisor, to attending a workshop hosted by the McGill Counselling Services, to seeking out support from myAccess services, offered by the Office for Students with Disabilities (OSD), there are many ways to get academic support on campus at McGill.  

No matter what type of support you choose to seek out, know that you will be able to get through this. Panic attacks are common among students—though nonetheless scary—and there are a plethora of tactics you can use to mitigate their presence.

All the best,


There are many more resources in addition to the ones mentioned in this article. You may benefit from seeking professional support and therapy at the McGill Counselling Service in order to better understand the root and solution to your stress. McGill also offers many peer support programs including the Peer Support Center, the Sexual Assault Centre of the McGill Students' Society (SACOMSS), and McGill Students’ Nightline. These programs are very helpful if you don’t feel comfortable seeking professional help as they are offer in-person drop-ins, phone lines, and mentoring programs where students support each other. Lastly, there are many different community-based resources that are available by phone or in-person, such as Head & Hands, which offers a number of medical, social, and legal services, and Face à Face, an intervention centre offering active listening, intervention, and collaborative support.

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