Having a panic attack can be a terrifying experience. Your heart races, you feel like you can’t breathe, and you may even feel like you’re dying or going crazy. The intense physical symptoms and anxious thoughts can seem completely overwhelming in the moment.
The good news is that panic attacks are not dangerous and will eventually pass, even though it may not feel like it. By using some simple techniques, you can help reduce your panic symptoms and get through an attack. With practice over time, you may even be able to stop attacks before they get out of control.
Recognize the Symptoms
The first step in coping with a panic attack is recognizing that you are, in fact, having an attack. Some common symptoms include:
- Racing heartbeat
- Sweating or chills
- Trembling or shaking
- Shortness of breath or feeling smothered
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Nausea or upset stomach
- Tingling or numbness in the hands and fingers
- Sense of impending doom or fear of losing control
Two key things to understand about these symptoms. First, they are created by your nervous system’s natural fight-or-flight response. Your brain misinterprets normal bodily sensations as a sign of imminent danger. Second, the symptoms are not harmful. As uncomfortable as they are, they will pass.
Resist the Urge to Flee
When panic hits, your instinct may be to escape the situation. You may want to rush out of where you are or quickly leave to get help. However, giving in to this urge to flee can reinforce the pattern.
Instead, try to remain where you are, if possible. Talk yourself through the attack and allow your nervous system to settle back down naturally. This will ultimately help you gain confidence that you can tolerate panic symptoms without disastrous consequences.
Focus on Your Breathing
One of the quickest ways to calm down when you’re having a panic attack is to focus on your breathing. This serves two important purposes:
- Deep breathing counters the rapid, shallow breathing that accompanies panic. This activates your parasympathetic nervous system, stopping the “fight-or-flight” response.
- Focusing your attention on your breath distracts you from anxious thoughts.
Try taking slow, steady breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth. Breathe in for a count of 4, hold for a count of 4, and exhale for a count of 6. Repeat until you start to feel your heart rate and breathing slow down.
Challenge Anxious Thoughts
During a panic attack, your mind may race from one catastrophic thought to the next. “I’m going to pass out!” “I’m having a heart attack!” “I’m losing control!”
The key is to recognize that these anxious thoughts are exaggerated and unrealistic. Once you can identify them, you can start to challenge their validity:
- “Am I really going to pass out or is it just a rush of adrenaline?”
- “Is my heart racing because I’m having an attack or because I feel anxious?”
- “Do I really have any evidence that I’m losing control?”
Remind yourself that you’ve made it through attacks before and this one will pass too. Don’t try to fight the thoughts, just notice them and let them go.
Get Up and Move
If you begin to feel a panic attack coming on, get up and start moving around. Go for a brisk walk, stretch, or do some jumping jacks. Physical activity can help discharge some of the adrenaline flooding your body.
Shaking out your arms and legs can also help relieve pent-up tension caused by the fight-or-flight response. Movement may be the last thing you feel like doing during an attack, but it can really help reduce the physical symptoms.
Splash Cold Water on Your Face
A quick and easy technique for calming down during a panic attack is splashing cold water on your face. This triggers the diver’s reflex, which automatically slows your heart rate. The sudden temperature change also jolts you out of negative thought patterns.
Keep a water bottle handy at home, work, and in the car. A few splashes of cold water on your face and neck can snap you out of panic mode within seconds. Just be careful not to overdo it, as this technique can be shocking.
Get Grounded in the Present
When you feel a panic attack coming on, try shifting your focus outward on your surroundings rather than inward on your thoughts and symptoms. This mindful attention to the present moment can serve as a brief “reset” button for your nervous system.
Try noticing five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. This mental exercise distracts you from fearful thoughts and brings your attention back to the here and now.
Find a Quiet Place
If possible, make your way to a quiet, private space during an attack. Being around too much activity or other people can feel overstimulating when you’re already in a panicked state.
Find a place where you can sit, lie down, or pace safely. Close your eyes and try the breathing, mindfulness, and thought-challenging techniques. Having silence and solitude can really help you pull through.
Call a Friend
Talking to a trusted friend or family member can help ease a panic attack, especially if you have someone who has helped you through attacks before. Explain what’s happening and describe your symptoms.
Ask them to help talk you through it in a calm, reassuring tone. They can remind you that what you’re experiencing is just a temporary panic attack and that you’re not truly in danger. Focus on the sound of their voice rather than your fearful thoughts.
Caffeine from coffee, tea, soda, or energy drinks can exacerbate panic attacks by making your heart race and increasing overall feelings of anxiety. Avoid consuming caffeine for at least several hours before situations where you may be prone to panic attacks.
Consider cutting back on caffeine altogether if you experience frequent attacks. Drinking mainly water instead can help you stay calm, hydrated, and prevent the ups and downs of caffeine intake.
Carry a Calming Scent
Having a pleasant scent you can smell during a panic attack can help calm your nervous system. The aroma of essential oils like lavender, clary sage, bergamot, or sandalwood has natural anxiety-reducing properties.
Carry scented oils with you to sniff if you feel a panic attack coming on. You can put a few drops of oil onto a handkerchief, cotton ball, or aromatherapy inhaler. Breathe deeply and take comfort from the soothing scent.
A common symptom during a panic attack is hyperventilating, which means breathing too fast or deeply. This causes dizziness, chest tightness, lightheadedness, and other scary symptoms.
Try breathing into a paper bag or cupping your hands over your mouth and nose to resist hyperventilating. This helps restore normal CO2 levels so you don’t feel so breathless. If lightheadedness persists, sit down and put your head between your knees.
Repeat a Mantra
Having a calming mantra or phrase you can repeat to yourself during a panic attack can help ground you at the moment. It gives you something positive and reassuring to focus on instead of your panicked thoughts.
The mantra can be spiritual in nature, a simple reassuring statement, or something that has a special meaning for you. Some examples include “This too shall pass,” “I am safe and all is well,” or “Just breathe, you’re going to be okay.”
Don’t Fight It
As counterintuitive as it sounds, trying to fight against panic symptoms often makes them worse. Struggling against the attack creates tension in both your mind and body.
Instead, try your best to accept and allow the symptoms to run their course without judging them. Remind yourself that the symptoms are not dangerous and will pass. Avoid resisting them or wishing they would go away faster.
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Seek Professional Help
If your panic attacks are severe or you have them frequently, consider seeking help from a mental health professional. A therapist can teach you coping strategies to prevent and manage panic attacks.
Your doctor may also prescribe medication such as SSRIs, SNRIs, benzodiazepines, or beta blockers to help relieve panic symptoms. Combining therapy, medication, and self-help techniques provides overall relief. There is no shame in needing additional support.
Panic attacks can arise unexpectedly and feel debilitating in the moment. However, by employing the right coping strategies, you can get through them safely and reduce their intensity over time. With practice, you’ll gain confidence in your ability to handle these anxiety flare-ups as they occur.