5 Effective Ways to Stop Panic Attacks
The only thing on my mind was impending doom and certain death
You’re Not Alone
Each year, an estimated 11.2 percent of adults in the United States will experience a panic attack. That’s roughly 36 million people.
Here’s the takeaway from these numbers: If you think you’re alone, you couldn’t be further from the truth.
At this point, you’re probably the odd one out if you HAVEN’T experienced a panic attack.
My own first experience came when I was around 19.
I remember shaking terribly, my heart racing, and some very concerning chest pain.
This was long before I knew anything about anxiety, so the only thing on my mind was impending doom and certain death.
It eventually did subside, as panic attacks do, but not before leaving me a frightened mess.
For anyone interested, I covered my first panic attack in more detail in How to calm down during a panic attack.
And that’s the thing about panic attacks, more than anything else they’re just frightening.
Not only do symptoms like chest pain, shortness of breath, a racing heart, and more bring the absolute worst to mind.
But anxiety and panic also cause a form of thinking known as catastrophizing!
Anxiety Makes Us Irrational and Illogical
When we catastrophize our thinking automatically locks onto the worst case scenario, even if it’s extremely unlikely.
- Being called to your boss’ office means you’re being fired.
- Someone running late means they’re hurt or worse.
- And of course chest pain and shortness of breath means you’re about to die.
To a rational mind, these might be easy to dismiss, but the anxious or panicked mind is far from rational. If anything it’s the exact opposite.
So if we can’t even control our thoughts, what chance do we have at managing panic? It might seem like there’s very little we can do.
But I have found a few things that seem to do the trick, and that’s what I wanna show you today!
Hopefully they will work as effectively for you as they have for me at stopping panic and anxiety.
1) Slow Down Your Breathing
Personally this is the first thing I do whenever I start feeling panicky, and it usually calms me down immediately.
It works because anxiety and panic makes you breathe faster. And when you breathe too fast it can quickly cause a state known as overbreathing.
Overbreathing isn’t dangerous, but it does cause a long list of uncomfortable symptoms:
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Numbness/tingling sensations
- Dizziness and lightheadedness
- More anxiety
But most importantly, it also famously leads to panic attacks.
By simply slowing down your breathing you can counter overbreathing and effectively avoid most panic attacks.
I recommend experimenting with the relaxation technique known as abdominal breathing if you want to take this approach.
2) Remind Yourself that You’re Safe
In her book “Hope and Help for Your Nerves” Dr. Claire Weekes writes about a concept known as “second-fear”.
Second-fear happens when we fuel the fires of anxiety and panic by engaging in catastrophizing.
Essentially we make things ten times worse by repeatedly thinking about, and believing in, all the worst case-scenarios.
During a panic attack these can be thoughts like:
- “Oh my god, I can’t breathe, I might suffocate!”
- “My heart is beating too fast, and my chest hurts, is this a heart attack?!”
- “I’m going crazy, what are other people going to think if they see me like this!”
All of the extra anxiety and panic that we hand ourselves by entertaining these thoughts is completely unnecessary.
Panic attacks aren’t dangerous in the slightest. They can’t harm you or make you go crazy, and they certainly can’t kill you.
Of course you’ll have to really know and believe these facts, and you have to practice bringing them to mind.
The next time you catch yourself adding fuel to the fire through catastrophizing, remind yourself that panic attacks are uncomfortable, but not dangerous.
3) Dropping Anchor
Dropping anchor is a technique from acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT).
It can be used to quickly calm yourself and regain control when faced with anxiety or panic.
This is how it works:
You start by becoming aware of the painful and uncomfortable feelings and sensations you’re experiencing.
Acknowledge them and give them a name:
- “My heart is beating fast.”
- “There is a pain in my chest.”
- “I’m catastrophizing.”
There’s no reason to judge the experiences, they’re neither bad nor good. Just bring your awareness to them, and give them a name.
You can now move your focus to your body and come back into it.
Press your feet into the ground, stretch and feel your muscles lengthen, take deep breaths and feel the air enter your lungs, or anything else that helps you enter your body.
The last step is to engage with the world around you and here I like to use the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique.
Simply bring your awareness to your surroundings, and in this order:
- List five things you can see
- Four things you can hear
- Three things you can feel
- Two things you can smell
- And finally one thing you can taste
Don’t be afraid to move around during this last stage of the exercise if you want to engage with something out of range.
4) Ride the Waves
What’s true for physical objects is also true for panic attacks.
What comes up must come down.
This is the one thing every panic attack, past and future will without failure have in common.
All panic attacks have a beginning and an end.
You know this from personal experience, just as certain as the sun rising and falling in the sky.
No matter how bad a panic attack gets, it won’t last forever.
In fact, most will last no more than five minutes.
So if all else fails and you find yourself in the middle of a panic attack.
Know that this is temporary and that very soon things will yet again return to normal.
5) Be Proactive
Possibly the most important step in handling panic attacks is to be proactive.
You don’t need to worry about stopping panic attacks if they never happen to begin with.
It’s well known that higher levels of stress leads to more anxiety and panic, so you want to reduce stress levels as much as possible.
Practicing deep relaxation
Techniques like abdominal breathing, muscle relaxation, mental imagery, meditation, etc. can be incredibly helpful.
Sleep is probably more important than you think. Set a regular bedtime, get a good 7 hours, and avoid coffee, big meals, and electronics right before bed.
Following an exercise routine
Try to get 30 minutes of exercise at least 5 days per week. Your body and mind will thank you!
Set aside some time to just experience the present moment and your surroundings.
Taking a break from social media and news
You might not be aware, but the constant bombardment of negative news really does take a toll on mental health. Cut it out for a week and see for yourself.
Looking into a course on stress management
I’ve been meaning to do this myself,
but have been too stressed out to find the time…
I know there’s plenty of other ways to reduce stress!
If you know any that I forgot to mention, please leave them in the comment section below.
I love to see your ideas and feedback!