A video trend on TikTok has people who suffer from anxiety disorders wondering if popping a sour candy in their mouth can help ease panic attack symptoms.
In one of the topic’s numerous viral videos on the social media platform, therapist Micheline Maalouf shows off her jar of sour Warheads candy as she explains why she recommends it to her patients and TikTok followers.
“Eating something sour can trigger saliva production, which is slowed down when our body goes into fight or flight mode,” Maalouf said.
@micheline.maalouf You can really use anything sour, spicy, salty. Tey different things out and see which is most helpful to you! I find these candies to be easy to take anywhere and convenient #panicattack #panicattacks #panic #tiktoktaughtme #tiktokpartner â¬ original sound – Micheline Maalouf Therapist
Everyone’s body can feel that fight-or-flight reaction in certain dangerous situations. However, for people who suffer from anxiety disorders, this sudden (and frightening) experience can spiral into what we commonly know as a panic attack.
Anxiety in America
Anxiety is the most common mental illness in the United States. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 19.1% of people ages 18 and older in the U.S. suffer from anxiety disorders. The Cleveland Clinic reported about 11% of the U.S. population experiences a panic attack annually.
Anxiety and panic disorders are connected, but panic attacks are a severe symptom of anxiety.
What Is a Panic Attack?
The Mayo Clinic describes panic attacks as “a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause.”
Panic attack symptoms include:
- A feeling of being out of control
- A fear of death or impending doom
- A pounding/racing heart
- Breathing troubles
- Chest pain
- Numbness in hands
- Stomach pain
How severe can these symptoms be? A 2017 Journal of Health Psychology study reported that over six months, 1,327 people went to the emergency room with chest pain that turned out to be a panic attack symptom and not an acute cardiac condition (heart attack.) However, medical professionals stress that panic attacks in themselves are not life-threatening.
Keeping these concerning symptoms in mind, it’s hard to imagine how something as simple as sour candy can help ease someone in the early stages of a panic attack.
Sour Candy as a Distraction
When panic attack symptoms show up in the body, they quickly become overwhelming and start a domino effect in people who have panic attacks. If a person can stop that chain reaction early in the process, perhaps their symptoms can be managed before they become severe.
That’s where the sour candy comes in. When someone pops a sour candy into their mouth, the taste and pucker effect can pull attention away from mental or physical symptoms and help re-focus someone in a panic.
“When you are anxious, it’s hard not to focus on anything except for being anxious,” explained Sarah Rollins, a psychotherapist with Embodied Wellness PLLC, a virtual clinical therapy group. “Sour candy distracts you … and is a type of mindfulness. It jolts you into the present moment of awareness, which reduces nervous system activation.”
In other words, the body’s reaction to the sour candy can battle against the nervous system’s hyperactivity during a panic attack and help people reconnect to their present. Mental health professionals refer to this as grounding.
Does Science Back Up the Sour Candy Theory?
When discussing any physical or mental medical treatment, it’s essential to consider whether science backs up the practice. Specifically, we found no studies that focused on sour candy’s effectiveness in minimizing panic attack symptoms.
However, the concept behind using sour candy — distraction — has scientific precedent. A 2016 study in the Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment concluded that using distraction techniques as a form of acceptance, rather than avoidance of an emotion entirely, can help take the edge off painful emotions.
In other words, combining distraction with strategies such as cognitive behavioral therapy to address the sources of stress may help you cope with feelings of panic.
Joanna Hardis, a licensed therapist who specializes in treating anxiety disorders and OCD, agreed with this conclusion and told us it’s essential for people to understand that sour candy or other behavior hacks (such as eating spicy foods or snapping rubber bands) are not panic attack cures.
“There’s nothing magical about sour candy,” she told us. “The key to truly treating panic is to learn to relax into the symptoms.”
Hardis clarified that most panic attacks, while intense, usually last about 20 minutes unless the patient gets too deep in the emotional/physical symptom cycle. The sour candy may give some people a head start on breaking that loop, but it can also backfire.
“You never want to have a conditional recovery,” Hardis explained, noting that you should not go in with the attitude that, “I can handle things IF I have sour candy with me at all times and in every room in my house, my car, office, etc.”
She added that sour candy can be helpful in the beginning of anxiety recovery, but, “true freedom requires learning how to ride out intense feelings without it.”
Other Panic Attack Coping Strategies
Mental health experts have a number of recommendations to help people who suffer from panic attacks to navigate through the symptoms, some of which are also distraction-based. For example, Nebraska Medicine suggests holding an ice cube in your hand or otherwise using cold water and ice to ground your emotions. Other hacks are designed to reduce the amount of stimulation you’re getting; for example, you could try simply closing your eyes.
Rollins and Hardis recommend practicing mindfulness behaviors like deep breathing, meditating and repeating positive phrases or mantras, such as, “I am OK.”
Hardis also said it’s helpful to remember that a panic attack’s “discomfort is temporary” and not life-threatening, even though it can feel that way.
“The key to treating panic and/or any anxiety disorder is to get out of the ‘doing’ mindset and into an ‘allowing’ headspace where you learn to let the feelings and thoughts be as you do what you need or want to do,” she added.
Ultimately, it is best to work with your doctor and/or a mental health specialist to address the root cause of panic and anxiety attacks. While coping tips such as sour candy and distraction help treat the symptom, anxiety is best reduced with understanding the causes and effective treatments recommended by experts — not by TikTok.