Practical tips for overcoming panic attacks in public

With mental health issues becoming increasingly common, knowing how to manage anxiety is important.

With mental health issues becoming increasingly common, knowing how to manage anxiety is important.

Published Jun 25, 2024


An anxiety attack can be scary.

Your heart might start racing, you could sweat more than usual and feel restless or jittery.

Sometimes, it feels like you can’t breathe properly and your mind is overwhelmed with constant worries.

These physical and emotional feelings can make it hard to do everyday tasks.

In South Africa, where mental health issues are increasingly common, knowing how to manage anxiety is important.

The nation has been reported as having some of the worst mental health issues in the world, with financial troubles, high crime rates and social pressures among the factors that can cause stress and leave many people vulnerable to mental health problems.

A 2022 paper by the Wits/Medical Research Council’s Developmental Pathways for Health Research Unit painted a grim picture of mental health in South Africa.

The national survey, titled “The Prevalence of Probable Depression and Probable Anxiety”, and the “Associations with Adverse Childhood Experiences and Socio-Demographics”, revealed that more than a quarter of South Africans probably suffer from depression, with certain provinces showing even higher rates.

Experiencing an anxiety attack for the first time can be terrifying but there are many effective alternatives to medication.

From regular exercise to mindfulness and balanced eating, these methods can greatly improve your mental well-being.

Practical techniques for managing attacks in public

The pressures of modern living often manifest in anxiety, translating into crippling attacks that can strike anywhere – even during typical, everyday activities such as working at the office or shopping in the mall.

When those panicky moments hit, knowing how to manage them can make all the difference.

Grounding techniques

Grounding exercises evolved from cognitive behavioural therapy practices. They work by reconnecting you with the present moment, reducing the overwhelming sense of fear.

5-4-3-2-1 Method

Identify five things you can see, four that you can touch, three that you can hear, two that you can smell and one that you can taste. This mental exercise shifts focus away from the anxiety and centres your mind.

Deep breathing

Practise deep, diaphragmatic breathing by inhaling for a count of four, holding for four and exhaling for four. Repeat several times until you feel calmer.


Visualisation involves mentally picturing a serene place or situation. This technique can transport your mind to a safer, calmer environment, even when your body is stuck in a stressful one.

Close your eyes and imagine yourself in a peaceful place – a beach, a forest or in the mountains. Focus on the details: the colours, sounds and scents.

Pair visualisation with calming music through earphones if you’re in a noisy environment like a mall. Engagement in physical sensations can be a quick and discreet way to curb an anxiety attack.

Temperature change

Splash cold water on your face or run your hands under cold water. Alternatively, carry a cooling gel or a small ice pack.


If you’re at work, go for a brisk walk around the office or step outside for fresh air. In a mall, find a quiet spot to pace for a few minutes.

Gentle stretching exercises can release muscle tension. A few head rolls or shoulder shrugs can be done subtly without drawing attention.

Mindfulness exercises and positive affirmations can ground you in the present and promote a balanced mental state.

Mindfulness apps

Use apps such as Headspace, October Health or Calm for guided meditations if you have your smartphone handy.

Positive affirmations

Silently repeat affirmations like, “I am in control”, “This feeling will pass” or “I am safe.”

Create a small emergency anxiety kit for your bag or desk

Include items such as a small bottle of lavender oil, mint gum or a favourite soothing book. Each item should have a specific calming effect tailored to your needs.

Anxiety attacks can feel especially daunting when they strike in public spaces. However, with a few practical tips, you can learn to manage and soothe your symptoms, gradually regaining control over your mind and body.

The beauty of these techniques is that with consistent practice, they can become second nature, empowering you to stay calm and composed even in the most challenging situations.

Cape Times

Related Topics:

mental health