How to Realistically Stop a Panic Attack

The First Time It Happens and for Recurrent Panic Attacks

Panic attacks are sudden, overwhelming feelings of anxiety, fear, or dread. They often occur without warning, and they can have both physical and emotional symptoms.

Many people will experience at least one panic attack in their lifetime, and these episodes of panic can often be managed without the need for medication.

Though panic attacks can be scary, there are many ways to control them when they occur, including through the use of mind-body techniques such as relaxation, distraction, and mindfulness.

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What Does a Panic Attack Feel Like?

The first step in managing a panic attack is being able to recognize when it's happening.

Panic attacks can impact the entire body and mind and, along with physical symptoms, bring about feelings of doom, dread, and intense fear. They usually come on without warning, and their cause may be unknown.

Panic attacks can be so distressing that they can cause the person to feel as though they are dying, and the experience of having a panic attack can bring about additional fear or anxiety of future panic attacks.

When panic attacks continue to occur over time, it could be a sign of a panic disorder.

Physical Symptoms

Panic attacks are often mistaken for heart attacks, strokes, or other serious medical conditions, given their sudden onset and intense physical symptoms. These can include:

  • Racing heart or heart palpitations (fluttering or pounding)
  • Sweating
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Shortness of breath or choking sensation
  • Chest pain
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Chills or hot flashes

Panic attacks may be characterized by one or more of these symptoms, but all of them do not need to be present during an episode.

Emotional Symptoms

Along with physical symptoms, there are emotional or psychological symptoms that are brought on by panic attacks. These include:

  • Feelings of fear, dread, or doom
  • Loss of control
  • A feeling of going crazy
  • Fear of dying
  • A loss of connection from reality or a feeling of detachment

These symptoms can range in intensity and can occur before, after, or along with physical symptoms.

How to Deal with a Panic Attack

Panic attacks bring about a sense of loss of control, which can make you feel helpless in stopping them. Breaking panic attacks down into phases and symptoms makes it easier to recognize when they are coming on and interrupt them before they become too overwhelming.

Before

Panic attacks can occur for a number of reasons, including:

  • Unrelated to any specific trigger and unexpected: These types of panic attacks can even occur when you are relaxed or asleep and are the most common type of panic attack.
  • Situational-induced: These occur as a response to something specific and expected, such as being in an enclosed space. They happen in anticipation of the trigger or immediately after exposure to it.
  • Situational predisposed: With these types of attacks, a trigger often causes a panic attack, but not always. For example, having a fear of spiders and seeing a spider might bring on a panic attack, but sometimes an attack won't happen at all or one might occur after the trigger is no longer present.
  • Emotionally induced: These types of panic attacks are brought on by a special highly emotional circumstance. These types of attacks are common at night.
  • Situational: These types of panic attacks are common with specific types of phobias, like social phobias. They are also common in panic disorders.

Knowing the situations and triggers that may cause panic attacks can help you prepare for them. Having tools ready to use when needed offers some control over the situation and can lessen the intensity of symptoms.

Periods of high stress or facing a known cause of extreme worry can bring on a panic attack. In these circumstances, paying attention to the body and practicing relaxation techniques can help stop symptoms before they happen or before they worsen.

Find the Tools That Work Before a Panic Attack

It helps to have a set of tools ready to use before you have a panic attack. Find techniques that help you relax and stay in the present moment. Practice using these techniques so you know what to do when panic attack symptoms appear.

During

Panic attacks feel different for everyone. Some people might have physical symptoms first, followed by emotional symptoms, while others have emotional symptoms first or experience various symptoms at the same time. Regardless of how a panic attack feels, once it starts, there are ways to lessen or stop symptoms.

Panic attacks may feel like they are never ending, but they usually peak within 10 minutes. Keeping this in mind and using techniques that bring relaxation, distraction, and mindfulness can lessen symptoms during a panic attack

Relaxation techniques can help prevent hyperventilation, slow down a racing heart, and interrupt the body's natural panic response to extreme stress. Some examples include:

  • 4-7-8 breathing: Breathe in for a count of four, hold the breath for a count of seven, and breathe out for a count of eight.
  • Meditative breathing: Focus on the breath as it enters and leaves the body. As thoughts or distractions enter the mind, bring the focus back to breathing.
  • Grounding breathing: Combine a focus on breathing with a grounding experience like drawing circles on the palm of one hand with the finger of the other hand. Doing this distracts the mind and brings attention back to the body.

Panic attacks often get mistaken for medical emergencies, given the common physical reactions that accompany them. If you are unsure whether you're having a panic attack, call your doctor or go to the nearest emergency room for an evaluation.

Distraction can help by taking the focus off of the fear and other symptoms being experienced. Distraction can happen by doing something else, visualizing something else, or focusing on something else. Some ways to use distraction include:

  • Get some exercise: Go for a quick walk outside to change the environment and change your heart and breathing rates.
  • Use visualization: Think about a place that brings feelings of calm and happiness. This can be a real or imagined place. Add as many details as possible, including sights, smells, sounds, tastes, and feelings.
  • Give the senses a jolt: To interrupt the automatic reactions that happen in panic attacks, use a strong smell, like peppermint oil, or touch something very cold like an ice cube to snap the body and mind out of current symptoms.

Mindfulness helps keep the mind to the present moment. Since anxiety is related to having intense fear about the future or the unknown, using mindfulness lessens anxiety symptoms and brings the focus to the here and now. Some mindfulness exercises include:

  • Naming objects: Look around the room and name as many objects as possible in a certain color. If needed, continue to another color once finished.
  • Use the senses: Name five things in the room that can be heard, seen, felt, tasted, and smelled. Notice textures, flavors, and as many details as possible.
  • Notice the body: Do a body scan by thinking about each body part and how it feels. Tense and relax each muscle during the scan. Move slowly up the body from the toes to the top of the head, picturing each body part.

After

After a panic attack is over, it can be helpful to practice self-care. Doing some light exercise or stretching, taking a relaxing bath, or listening to soothing music can help bring the body and mind back to a calmer state.

It can also help to keep a journal for tracking panic attacks. After a panic attack has passed, try writing down everything that led up to it, including any potential triggers. Keep track of as many details as possible, including any thoughts or feelings that came up before and during the panic attacks. Over time, a journal will help you identify trends that can allow you to prepare for the next one.

Remember, panic attacks are not your fault. They can feel like lonely experiences, but they are very common. Most people recover from panic attacks without requiring treatment, and very few people develop a panic disorder after having a panic attack.

Anxiety vs. Panic Attacks

Anxiety and panic attacks are both very common. They are both often underdiagnosed or misdiagnosed as medical conditions.

Anxiety is characterized by ongoing worry or fear about the future. With generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), for example, anxiety symptoms are present for normal everyday experiences and can create mild-to-severe interruptions in a person's life. With anxiety, symptoms may be present on some level all the time or during specific periods of known stressors, such as during a public presentation.

Panic attacks tend to come on suddenly and can happen from either a calm state or a state of feeling anxious. They often occur without warning or a known trigger and bring a sense of doom, intense fear, and a feeling of dying.

Similarly, both anxiety and panic attacks have physical and psychological symptoms. With panic attacks, however, the symptoms tend to come on quickly and are often only present for up to 10 minutes. With anxiety, symptoms can be present for a much longer period of time.

When to Use Medication

Sometimes, panic attacks cannot be managed entirely alone. If panic attacks become an ongoing concern or they cause significant anxiety or fear about future panic attacks, it might be necessary to see a therapist or doctor.

Types of therapeutic interventions that have been shown to have the best outcomes include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and humanistic therapy. CBT involves understanding the relationship between thoughts and behaviors and working toward changing negative or distorted thoughts to more positive, helpful ones.

One study found CBT to be between 85% and 90% successful in treating panic disorders.

Humanistic therapy is a type of intervention that helps people make rational decisions and accept responsibility for themselves. Common humanistic therapy approaches include client-centered therapy, gestalt therapy, and existential therapy.

If therapy alone is not effective in treating panic attacks, as may be the case in severe cases of panic disorders, medications may be recommended and prescribed by a psychiatrist. Commonly prescribed medications that have been shown to be effective in helping with panic disorders include antidepressants and benzodiazepines.

A Word From Verywell

Whether you've experienced one or many panic attacks, the physical, emotional, and psychological impact of symptoms can be extremely distressing. Gaining control over panic attacks means first understanding what is happening and being prepared with effective relaxation and mindfulness techniques to intervene before symptoms become overwhelming.

Remember that controlling panic attacks takes time, and changes won't happen overnight. Starting small by practicing one new relaxation exercise and noticing triggers will get you started on a path to being able to manage panic attack symptoms on your own.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the usual length of panic attacks?

    The length of a panic attack can vary, but most panic attacks peak around 10 minutes.

  • Are panic attacks and anxiety the same thing?

    Though they have some overlapping symptoms, anxiety and panic attacks are not the same thing. Mainly, anxiety symptoms usually last longer and triggers may be clearer. Alternately, panic attacks tend to come on suddenly without warning or a clear trigger.

  • What should you do if your panic attacks get worse?

    A mental health professional should be contacted any time panic attacks are recurring or if they create fear or anxiety regarding additional panic attacks in the future.

  • How do you deal with a panic attack naturally?

    Often, panic attack symptoms can be managed through relaxation techniques. If hesitant about using medications, try breathing exercises, meditation, light exercises like stretching and walking, and other calming practices.

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4 Sources
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