Stopping a panic attack can be very difficult for certain people. For others, stopping panic in its tracks is a matter of learning how to react during its onset. When most people experience a panic attack, they are already highly stressed. Increased levels of stress can influence the severity of your panic as well as your ability to cope.
When attempting to overcome panic, most people come to realize that there tends to be a learning curve. Even if you know what it takes to stop a panic attack, putting the knowledge into action if often much easier said than done. Panic tends to make us get caught up in the moment and leads us to believe that a worst-case scenario is going to occur.
How To Stop A Panic Attack
Fortunately there are some helpful basic concepts you can master in order to stop a panic attack and reduce the frequency of panic. Understand that you may not be successful in stopping panic on your first attempt, but you will eventually get the hang of it with practice. Over time, you will find that the ideas listed below will at the very least increase your ability to psychologically cope with panic attacks.
Before you can ever hope to stop a panic attack, you must initially learn how to properly cope with it. The first step of coping with any sort of panic and/or extreme anxiety involves acceptance. When you accept the panic, this means you view it as a physiological reaction that you cannot control. In other words, when the panic sets in, you will want to surrender to it and not “fear” the reaction.
The worst thing you can do when the surge of panic hits is to fight it. When you fight against the panic, you will likely make it worse. Accept that the panic is going to feel uncomfortable, and may make you feel crappy. Fighting the panic is only going to magnify its intensity; this is essentially throwing more fuel on an already potent fire. If you accept it, discomfort, sweaty palms, palpitations, and all – you will actually reduce its intensity.
2. Detached observation
When coping with something brief like a panic attack, you need to initially accept that it will feel uncomfortable and surrender to it. Once you’ve surrendered, the next thing you should do is observe it. Literally let the process occur throughout your body and brain, and take a mental step back. Your goal should be to view the panic response occurring in your body and brain almost as if you are in the first and third person.
From a first-person standpoint, you can feel the sensations that accompany panic throughout your body and mind. However, if you take a step back and “detach” yourself from the feelings, you essentially view your situation from an outside perspective. It can be difficult to master detachment, but keep practicing and your ability should improve. While you are observing, try to not get caught up in the emotion, rather think of the panic as a storm you are watching happen throughout your body.
Although you get to feel every uncomfortable symptom that is occurring in your body, you don’t have to let it bother you. The goal is to sit and observe the physical and mental processes during panic and detach yourself from the feelings of discomfort. Through the act of observation, you will eventually learn that the panic is going to inevitably subside.
3. Let time pass
While a panic attack is happening, you need to accept it, observe it, and ultimately let time pass. The goal here is to let the panic attack happen, but view it as mere discomfort that will eventually pass. Let the panic attack happen, and realize that as time passes, you will eventually feel better. Letting time pass is helpful because most people want immediate relief from their internal panic and when they don’t get the relief, they actually increase their panic.
As time passes, your panic attack is eventually going to stop – panic cannot be maintained for 24 hours a day. At some point it will eventually die in intensity and you won’t feel as uncomfortable as during an attack. If you continue to accept the panic, observe it, and let time pass, eventually your panic attacks will likely become less severe and probably occur less frequently. Although they are a very uncomfortable physiological reaction, they are not permanent. And the age old adage “time heals all wounds” also holds true for many cases of panic.
4. Burn the anxiety / fear energy
For some people, accepting, observing, and letting time pass don’t stop the panic enough in order to properly function. Although they may decrease the intensity of panic, they will not work for everyone. Another option you have is to actually burn up the anxiety and fear energy coursing throughout your body. During a panic attack, most people surge with an increase in energy.
If a person “freezes” with panic, they are essentially letting the panic energy take over their body. Someone in the middle of a panic attack needs to find an outlet for this physiological surge of energy. The best way to essentially “burn up” this energy is by doing anything in order to release the trapped energy. Taking a medication may work well to help reduce this energy, which is why many people find medications effective.
Others may find relaxation exercises like deep breathing, progressive relaxation, and guided meditation helpful during panic states. With that said, often times a counterintuitive solution like embracing the panic can work great. Some people suggest deep breathing, thinking relaxing thoughts, etc. For others, that have tried those solutions with no relief, try flipping the script and embracing your panic.
Whenever you experience a panic attack, come up with an activity you can force yourself to do when you sense the onset of panic. No matter where you are or what you’re doing, when the panic hits, embrace the panic and use the energy that you are given to do something. Panic attacks stimulate the body with an increase in physical energy. The goal should be to “burn up” this energy by yelling, kicking, screaming, running, jumping, doing push ups, etc.
Obviously you will want to know an activity that you’ll be able to get away with performing. A suggestion would be something along the lines of screaming and beating a punching bag for an hour. Or you could commit yourself to do 200 push ups until the panic goes away. By moving your body, you are helping release some of the pent up physical energy that needs to be expressed during panic. Another option would be to run sprints until you can no longer walk, let alone panic.
5. Change the atmosphere
If your panic is being triggered by an environmental situation, a change of scenery could be beneficial. Something as simple as going outside and getting some fresh air can work wonders for easing panic. Go for a walk, change the scenery, get out of your house if that’s where you are panicking. If you are at a friend’s house or at work, realize that no one is making you stay. In most cases you can either leave temporarily or call it a day and go home.
In many cases it will help to take a short break to clear your head from the panic. Go outside and go for a walk to clear your mind. If it helps, listen to some music or inspirational audio tapes to help you get back on track. Understand that changing the atmosphere won’t work well for everyone, but it can be extremely beneficial in certain cases. If the atmosphere you are in constantly contributes to your panic such as living in a busy city or your work is too stressful, you may want to even consider making permanent changes.
6. Avoid triggers / desensitization
If you have identified specific triggers that are causing you to panic, your goal should be to avoid them. For example, if you know that each time you drink caffeine you start to experience panic, avoid the caffeine in the future. If you start to panic in tight spaces such as in claustrophobia, do your best to avoid getting caught in small spaces.
It is best to address the triggers in some sort of therapeutic setting. In some cases a patient with panic disorder may benefit significantly from exposure therapy. The goal with exposure therapy is to gradually desensitize a person to the trigger or stimulus that was causing panic. Exposure tends to be gradual and starts with a small exposure and leads to a larger one.
For example if you are afraid of dogs, you may start by just looking at a picture of one. The ultimate goal would be something like having you pet a dog. Desensitization doesn’t happen overnight, but re-trains your thinking and brain to realize that certain triggers shouldn’t be associated with danger and/or panic.
7. Consider medication
Although medication shouldn’t be recommended as a first-line treatment for panic attacks, it is the most effective at providing immediate relief. The most effective medications for reducing panic tend to be benzodiazepines. These drugs act on GABA receptors in the brain to promote relaxation and depress overactivity in the central nervous system. The problem with these drugs is that they carry many unwanted long-term effects such as development of dementia.
Other drugs that may be effective include SSRIs, beta blockers, and atypical anxiolytics such as Clonidine. If you have tried everything on this list and cannot seem to come up with a solution to stop your panic attacks, medication may help significantly. Realize though that many medications carry unwanted side effects (read: antidepressant side effects) and in the long-term may make your panic worse.
What NOT to do during a panic attack
There are some great ways to deal with a panic attack, and there are some strategies that tend to make it worse. In nearly all cases, resisting or fighting the panic is going to make it even more intense. Additionally dreading the panic and expecting a quick fix in all cases is likely going to frustrate you and may lead to increased stress and/or depression.
1. Resist it
Fighting the panic and anxiety response will only further increase the amount of panic you experience and in all likelihood, lengthen the attack. Resistance to the attack usually leads to further anxiety because it is not something you can control. By resisting the panic, you are maintaining a positive-feedback loop for panic – increasing the likelihood that they will occur in the future.
2. Identify with the panic
Understand that panic attacks do not define you as a person. They are merely the result of a physiological reaction that is beyond your control. If you begin to identify with the dread that accompanies panic, it may make you more depressed, and you may feel hopeless about your situation – which inevitably leads to worse panic. Once a panic attack sets in, you cannot control it, but you can control your reaction to it.
3. Expect a “quick fix”
Although there are quick fixes to treat panic such as benzodiazepines, using these is not a good long-term strategy. These drugs are associated with rapid-tolerance, addiction, and ultimately the development of dementia if used frequently. Quick fix methods do not usually work well over the long-term for management of any illness. It is best to come up with a management and prevention strategy by using a combination of natural methods and safe anxiolytic medication if necessary.
Prevent Panic Attacks in the Future
Doing what you can to prevent panic attacks can go a long way towards reducing the frequency of episodes. It helps to know the root cause of your panic so that you can come up with specific prevention strategies to reduce the likelihood of panic. For example, if you think that working longer hours is influencing your panic, you may need a vacation and to cut your work hours to prevent the panic from occurring. It also helps to address the cognitive, psychological, and physical responses that all contribute to panic.
1. Determine the cause of panic attacks
There are many things that cause panic attacks. With the help of medical professionals such as a doctor and a psychologist, you may gain some insight as to what could be causing your panic. It could be an undetected medical problem such as hypoglycemia or it may be due to psychological stress or trauma from specific events or people. Understanding what causes your specific panic will help provide clarity as to what the best method of treatment will be.
2. Address the specific cause or contributing factors
After you have identified the cause of your panic attacks, your next goal should be to address it. Let’s say you were diagnosed with hypoglycemia and it was likely causing your panic attacks. You would then come up with a treatment for the condition and the panic will likely stop. If something like overworking is causing your panic, you may need to scale back on work hours.
In many cases there are a variety of factors that all contribute to increasing likelihood of panic. For example, someone may be in an abusive relationship, using illicit drugs, and simultaneously have significant financial stress. As soon as the person works towards getting out of the relationship, enters rehab and quits using illicit drugs, and gets a job to reduce financial stress – the panic attacks may subside.
Sometimes many different factors need to be addressed depending on the person. The solutions will vary based on the individual. One person may benefit from practicing deep breathing and relaxation, while another may benefit from making some lifestyle changes.
3. Cognitive changes
Addressing the cognitive, psychological aspects of panic is often very helpful. Once people realize that there is no reason to get caught up in their panic, they can learn strategies to cope with it such as acceptance. Usually CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) addresses faulty cognition and helps a person realize the error in their way of thinking. It then takes measures to correct unrealistic thinking and shift a person’s perspective as well as their capacity to cope with panic.
4. Psychomotor relaxation
In addition to changes in thinking, a person usually will need to slow down their psychomotor activity. In panic, there tends to be a heightened level of activity in the brain which is characterized by beta waves, and a lack of relaxing alpha waves. To reduce the anxiety-producing brain waves, it is important to frequently utilize proven relaxation techniques such as: meditation, progressive relaxation, and deep breathing.
Over time, by using relaxation techniques, you will be able to literally change your brain activity. For example, consistent meditation practices have been found to permanently alter brain activity and increase a person’s threshold to stress (and obviously panic). Targeting the mental aspect of panic attacks is half the battle.
4. Physical relaxation
A component that often gets neglected by those who panic is the physical aspect. Although targeting the mental aspects of panic can be helpful, most people do not realize that their physical bodies play a huge role in contributing to panic. Your physical body is what expresses the panic, is what releases the adrenaline, and what makes you “feel” uncomfortable.
The physical body goes hand-in-hand with your brain. Trying to relax in your head without increasing relaxation in your body probably won’t work as well as targeting both. By relaxing your physical body in addition to your brain activity, you are targeting panic holistically.
An activity such as yoga works wonders for addressing both the psychological and physical panic attack symptoms. Not only does it put the panic energy to work through your physical body, but it also tends to be mentally relaxing. This is why getting exercise to tire out the body isn’t usually enough. If you burn off the physical energy and force yourself to engage in some sort of mental relaxation, you target the physical and psychological aspects.
It is important to continue using effective strategies to help prevent and stop panic when it occurs. Many people find something that works and make temporary changes, but do not maintain them over the long term, resulting in a relapse of panic. If you know you are prone to experiencing panic, do your best to maintain a healthy lifestyle, seek therapy if necessary, and faithfully take any medications that you’ve found beneficial. In other words, come up with a long-term game plan for coping with panic and preventing it.
6. Customized strategy: Take personal responsibility
It is important to understand that what works for one person in stopping a panic attack, may not necessarily work for another person. If you haven’t found anything beneficial for your panic, chances are that there is something in this article listed that you haven’t tried (or a combination of things). Take the time to develop a personalized strategy and find things that specifically work well to stop your panic.
In general, the best way to stop a panic attack is by taking preventative measures to reduce the likelihood that one will happen. This means practicing frequent relaxation, eating healthy, learning how to properly cope with them, understanding what happens during a panic attack, as well as considering medication and/or therapy if necessary.