How To Stop A Panic Attack Immediately
Recently, I had a panic attack hit me like a bus. I needed to stop this racing bus immediately and get back in control of the situation. Anyone with anxiety knows what that feels like. Luckily, my years of training helped me to know exactly what steps to take to prevent a full-blown panic attack.
So how do you stop a panic attack immediately? Recognize that the anxiety is not a part of you, but an intruder in your life. Talk back to it, just like you would a bully or an unwanted interruption.
Sounds a lot easier said than done, right? Luckily, there are some simple things you can do to take back control and lessen the physical symptoms of a panic attack. In fact, there are six things you can do in the moment to combat a panic attack. Here are some suggestions:
1. Control Your Breathing
Usually when you tell someone who has anxiety to “calm down” it isn’t very helpful. When I say, “Control Your Breathing,” I don’t mean to magically calm yourself down, I mean to actually physically control how you breathe. When a person is having a panic attack they usually begin to hyperventilate. Hyperventilating is when your breathing gets out of balance. Each time you inhale you bring oxygen into your body; when you exhale you rid your body of carbon dioxide. This balance in breathing is very important to your body functioning properly. You need to have just the right amount of oxygen in your body, while getting rid of carbon dioxide. When a person starts to hyperventilate they exhale more than they inhale. This causes a rapid and dangerous reduction of carbon dioxide in the body. When you get too much CO2 in your body it will cause your heart to race, tingling in the extremities, feelings of light headedness, and you could even faint. Do these symptoms sound familiar? These are actually some of the most common symptoms of a panic attack. The reason you are feeling lightheaded, faint, and have a racing heart may not be purely psychological and related to your panicked thoughts, but an actual physical response to your disordered breathing.
This is why focusing on your breathing can be a way to lessen the effects of a panic attack. Make sure you are inhaling and exhaling the right amount of air. If you find that you cannot calm your breathing, take a hat or a paper bag and put it over your mouth. This will help to balance out the oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood and prevent you from inhaling too much oxygen. Count your breaths, and focus on your deep breaths in and full exhalations out until your racing heart slows down, you no longer feel lightheaded and faint, and your extremities no longer are feeling a tingling sensation.
2. Use Grounding Techniques
Many times when a person is having a panic attack they lose touch with reality. You might feel as though you are floating above reality, that people are far away, the noises are louder or quieter than they should be, and so forth. Grounding techniques can help you to determine what is real and what is not.
For example, some people find it helpful to have a calming object, such as a keychain, that they touch. Touch can play an important role in keeping you grounded. Other techniques include using your other senses: look for things you can smell, taste, hear or see that help to calm your nerves. Smelling a calming scent, like essential oils on a bracelet, can act as a great grounder when you are feeling anxious. Having candy or food in your bag can also help to bring you back to reality. If you know that you are prone to panic attacks, make sure you take with you an object to touch, something to smell or taste. If you do not have something on hand, try to focus on something that is in close proximity, like the smell of flowers, the feel of the fabric on your shirt or pants, or anything that can appeal to your senses that can help you feel more grounded.
3. Talk Back To The Anxiety
One of the main things we teach in the Anxiety Healing Program is how to determine when anxiety has interrupted your thoughts and what you can do to rid yourself of its unwanted effects. When you feel a panic attack coming on, you should identify that anxiety is present and talk to it like you would someone who has interrupted you during an important activity. Tell it that it needs to go away and show it that you are in control. You will need to identify what lies the anxiety is “telling” you and what things are actually real. For example, the anxiety might tell you “you should be scared right now,” “you are not good enough,” “you are going to faint,” “you are going to embarrass yourself,” and so much more. When you recognize that this bully has entered the scene and is trying to derail your day, then you can identify it for the liar that it is and tell it to go away.
Anxiety is unwanted thoughts and unwanted feelings. You can’t always control how you feel but you can control your reaction to it. When you start to feel intense feelings of worry and panic, you can react by not giving into the feelings and instead, rationally remind yourself of all the reasons you do not need to be worried or panicked. This comes with practice and effort. If you try talking back to your anxiety and the first time you are unsuccessful don’t become discouraged. It is a skill that must be learned and mastered. Just like you would never expect yourself to play the cello perfectly on the first try, you should never expect yourself to respond calmly and rationally during a panic attack the first time you try. Our at-home program can help the individual to practice these skills so that they are no longer plagued with these feelings. Instead, they are in control of how they react to their anxious feelings.
4. Distract Yourself
Panic attacks thrive on positive feedback. Positive feedback is a physiological response that can create a vicious cycle. In positive feedback cycles the more you get of a certain stimulant, the more your body will react and produce more of that stimulant. This means that the more you focus on the panic attack (the stimulant), the worse your panic attack will become. It is like telling yourself NOT to think about an elephant. What happens then? You can’t stop thinking about an elephant.
Instead, you should do what you can to stop the cycle of panic. If you focus on your panicked feelings, for instance saying over and over in your mind, “I am going to vomit,” chances are you are going to vomit. Instead, try focusing on something else. It could be a song on the radio, the pleasant weather, a conversation going on around you or anything that can take your mind off your panic. This may be a good time to pull out your electronic device and play a simple game. Any of these things can distract your mind enough so that you are not obsessing about the feelings of panic. You will find that as you distract yourself, your breathing, thoughts of worry, and physical symptoms will begin to subside.
5. Avoid Triggers If Possible
For most people panic attacks are triggered by a certain situation or activity. For example, if you have a toxic and strained relationship with a person, you might find that following them on social media can be a trigger for you. Seeing their activities, reading their opinions on hot topics, or even just seeing pictures of the person can cause you to feel intense anxiety. In this situation it would be advisable to avoid the trigger. There is no reason you need to follow this person, there is nothing gained, so the best solution would be to avoid contact with that person until you are in a better place emotionally.
Unfortunately, some situations won’t allow avoidance. For instance, if you have a panic attack every time you get into a car, this could be a challenge. It is not feasible that you would avoid driving or riding in a car for the rest of your life. In this situation, it could be helpful to do some preparation before you ride in the car. Have a playlist already prepared that you can turn on if you start to feel out of control. Choose to have objects or people with you that are calming. Knowing your triggers and knowing how to avoid them if possible can be helpful. If you can’t avoid the trigger, prepare yourself and be realistic about the chance that you may feel anxious, but with the right prep work, you can avoid a full panic attack.
6. Leave The Situation If All Else Fails
Finally, if you find yourself unable to calm yourself during your panic attack, the last solution is to leave the situation. Ideally, it is best to try and work through the complicated feelings and emotions in the moment, because there may be times when you are unable to escape the situation, such as on an airplane. This is why practicing tools to work through the panic attack is ideal. However, in some cases, especially in the early stages when you are first learning to combat panic attacks, you might find that you exhaust your resources and feel the need to escape. If this happens, try not to feel like a failure and let it dictate the rest of your life and your choices. Just because you had a panic attack at a concert that you couldn’t work through, for instance, doesn’t mean that you can’t practice the tools presented above and attend a concert in the future. Know that healing takes time and practice. If you do need to remove yourself from a difficult situation, don’t be ashamed, but also don’t be scared to try again in the future.
What if I have more types of anxiety and not only panic attacks?
It is common to have more than just one symptom of anxiety. Some people combat only panic attacks while others might feel social anxiety, excessive feelings of dread or worry throughout the day, or OCD that are also related to their panic attacks. Know that treatment for anxiety, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, can be helpful for all types of anxiety and can provide the tools needed to combat feelings of anxiety in children, teens and adults.
What if I still have panic attacks even after using these tools?
Teaching our bodies and minds to be calm can be hard. People struggling with anxiety may have many underlying factors. For some, techniques like these in this article and tools learned in the Anxiety Healing Program found here may be enough to heal their anxiety and provide the tools needed for a happy, healthy life. However, there may be other factors contributing such as past trauma, an underlying medical condition, or abuse. If the symptoms continue to be problematic, it would be wise to consult a medical professional about possible causes and perhaps consider medication. Many people find that they do best dealing with their anxiety when they implement tools such as those presented in this article as well as medical treatment. If you ever feel like your anxiety is beyond your control it would be wise to consult a doctor.
The tools presented in this article are based on Cognitive Behavioral Techniques and have been effective for many people in combating anxiety. However, this is in no way a replacement for medical treatment. If at any time you feel that you are unable to safely control your anxiety you should reach out to a mental health or medical professional to talk about the next steps for your safety.