Designing for self-help during panic attacks

Panic attacks are periods of intense fear or apprehension of sudden onset accompanied by different bodily or cognitive symptoms (such as heart palpitations, dizziness, shortness of breath, or feelings of unreality) of variable duration from minutes to hours.

Many find it difficult to handle their attacks and help themselves get through them. This both because of the accompaning symptoms and the shame and taboo attached to mental illness. Dealing with panic attacks through avoidance or distraction is not recommended, since this can worsen the attacks in the long run. There was a need for a tool to help users experiencing panic attacks face their attack in a calm and accepting way.

The result was a palm-sized self-help tool. The device has an organic design with strong focus on tactile sensations. The functionality is simplified and focused, for it to reach the user in their acute state. It initially assists breathing by glowing, expanding and contracting. After sensing the attack has subsided by measuring pulse, thought-pattern breaking messages are displayed.


The process and design strived to follow ISO 9241-210:2010: Human-Centred Design For Interactive Systems.

Context of use & user requirements



Analysis and synthesis

Clustering the results produced three themes: the situation, strategies to deal with the situation (with two different kind of strategies: logical and emotional) and the long term goals and needs. This was then synthesized into a hypothesis of initial design requirements.

Strategies - Logical
Strategies - Emotional
Long-term goals and needs
Inital requirements

Producing and evaluating design solutions

Idea generation

Idea generation was done through brainstorming sessions, sketching, inspiration collection with Pinterest and creative workshops with clay, paper, fabric and other materials.

Inspiration collage

Lo-fi prototyping

Through low fidelity prototyping we explored properties such as size, material (soft fabrics, rubber, glass and so on) and resistance (softness/hardness/"squeezability"). At this stage we had honed in on four functionality alternatives:

Tests were done with users where they got to explore and role-play with different materials and look at sketches.

Sketches and lo-fi prototypes

Hi-fi prototyping

A prototype with higher fidelity was made for further feedback and testing with users. After this we specified the final functionality and made our final protoypes.

Final functionality

At this stage we realized that it wouldn't be practically possible to make only one prototype to illustrate the entire concept. Therefore, we made one prototype focusing on the screen functionality and another focusing on the breathing guidance. The interactive parts of the prototypes were made with a smartwatch face, Arduino, Adafruit Gemma.