Panic is one of the key components in many cases of anxiety.
That sudden rush of fear that’s accompanied by intense physical sensations can make us feel as if we are about to die.
In fact, the fear of sudden death is what makes panic attacks extreme and overwhelming.
For that matter, I’ve decided to offer you a free and quick guide on how to stop a panic attack.
But before we can explore ways to deal with panic attacks, I want to clarify one critical misconception about this condition.
Once Panic Kicks In, There’s Not Much You Can Do
While doing some research for this guide, I noticed that a lot of people want to know how to stop a panic attack while it’s happening.
Although it may sound hard to accept, when panic sets in, there’s not much we can do about it.
Adrenaline is already flowing throughout the entire body, and your mind is flooded with all sorts of ‘dark’ thoughts.
One of the biggest misconceptions about panic attacks is that we can stop them as soon as they occur.One of the biggest misconceptions about panic attacks is that we can stop them as soon as they occur Click To Tweet
For some reason, many of us believe that there’s a “magical” way to put an end to the panic that takes over our mind and body during those intense moments when we feel like the entire world crashes down on us.
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact reason why this misconception has gained popularity.
Maybe it’s because we’re bombarded with articles that promise more than what common scientific knowledge can offer. Or perhaps it’s because we stubbornly refuse to accept the fact that sometimes, panic attacks can hit like a tornado – unexpected and uncontrollable.
To understand why it’s almost impossible to control a panic attack, first, we must understand how panic works.
Panic is a visceral, primal emotion. When it hits, your body and mind go on full alert. Your heart beats hard and fast, you’re gasping for air, and the one thought that keeps repeating in your head is – OMG, I’m going to die!
During those critical moments of intense fear, all we can think about is the possibility of sudden death. The sensation is almost unreal. It’s like we are completely out of control.
Long story short:
When panic hits, all you can do is wait it out. That’s the hard truth that we often find difficult to accept. The idea that, for a moment, we lose control over our body and mind can scare the hell out of even the most resilient of us.
Although we cannot control a panic attack, there are ways to stop it. How? By preventing it.
We can learn to identify the telltale signs of panic attacks, challenge our negative thinking, and gain control over what goes on in our bodies when panic begins to make its presence noticed.
So in a sense, halting panic attacks is all about having the right tools, or mindset, to prevent them.
And that’s precisely what this brief guide offers you.
What Is a Panic Attack?
Panic attacks are brief and sudden moments of intense fear or discomfort.
At a physiological level, panic manifests through:
- Heart palpitations
- Shortness of breath
- Or even chest pain.
Mentally, the overwhelming panic that has taken over our mind manifests as the fear of losing control, going insane, or even dying.
Panic attacks are not a standalone condition. They usually manifest as symptoms of various forms of anxiety.
A socially anxious person might experience a panic attack on his/her way to a party, while a person with agoraphobia might experience intense panic when going to the mall or using the subway.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. In fact, let’s look at some – in my opinion worrying – statistics:
Worldwide, anxiety disorders are the most common mental health issue.
Almost 18% of the global population is struggling with anxiety and the panic attacks that often accompany this problem.
That’s almost as many as mood disorders, substance disorders, and impulse control disorders combined.
If we are to look at specific forms of anxiety, it appears that specific phobia and social phobia are the most prevalent ones.
And you know what these two forms of anxiety have in common?
You guessed it – PANIC!
Although these stats were pulled from US populations, we can assume that worldwide, the situation isn’t better.
As you can probably imagine, there are millions of people out there struggling with anxiety and panic attacks. Millions of people who feel hopeless and powerless in the face of panic.
And since many of them don’t have access to treatment (medication, counseling, psychotherapy, support groups), we feel it’s our duty to provide them with something that will help them cope with panic attacks.
What Causes Panic Attacks?
#1: A mix of biological, psychological, and environmental factors
Although there aren’t any conclusive answers, researchers and mental health professionals believe panic attacks result from a combination of biological, psychological, and environmental factors.
Often, panic attacks begin to make their presence noticed between adolescence and adulthood.
This transition period is often marked by important events that can put a lot of stress on us.
These events – which can be both positive and negative – push us to assume the responsibilities of our new independent adult role.
Go to school. Get top grades. Graduate. Find a good job. Pay the bills. Get a mortgage. Take care of your family.
Sometimes, living this fast-paced life can be overwhelming.
Given that in such situations our stress levels can go off the charts and each of us responds differently, some of us may fail to discover adequate ways to cope with life’s hassles.
As a result, we begin to experience anxiety and panic attacks.
#2: Childhood separation anxiety
One specific cause of panic attacks could be childhood separation anxiety.
Separation anxiety is a phenomenon with which some of us interact without even realizing.
A good example of separation anxiety is when children refuse to ‘let go’ of their parents on the first day of school.
They cry and shout and refuse to give up on the safety, affection, and comfort of the parent-child relationship.
If our parents didn’t handle such events with care and compassion, chances are we might develop anxiety during our adult years.
Those of us who suffer from separation anxiety tend to worry more easily and are constantly afraid that something tragic might happen to them or their loved ones.
But what does this have to do with panic attacks?
Apparently, a study published in Depression and Anxiety suggests that childhood separation anxiety and adult-onset panic attacks share a common gene.
In other words, those of us who are genetically prone to separation anxiety will probably struggle with panic attacks too.
But just because some of us are genetically predisposed to anxiety and panic attacks doesn’t mean we’re powerless in the face of such problems. And there is indeed a lot that we can do to overcome this menacing problem, and that’s what I’m about to share with you next.
So, read on!
5 Tips to Prevent an Impending Panic Attack
#1 Know the signs
This is the first line of defense against panic attacks. By learning to identify the telltale signs of panic, you can then take the necessary steps to stop it.
As I said before, once panic takes over your mind and body, there’s not much you can do but wait it out.
So, what are the signs of an approaching panic attack?
- Your heart starts beating faster.
- You feel like you can’t get enough air, so you begin to breathe faster.
- Your muscles feel a bit tingly.
- Your palms and forehead are sweaty.
- You feel a bit dizzy and nauseous
- You might feel a cold chill going down your spine.
What I want you to understand is that all these symptoms don’t have to turn into a panic attack. Your body might sweat because it’s hot outside; your heart might beat faster because you’re in a rush; you might feel dizzy and nauseous because of something you ate or drank.
The point is, our body doesn’t always run as smoothly as a Swiss watch.
A slight irregularity in your heartbeat is not the sign of a heart attack and feeling slightly out of breath doesn’t mean your lungs will stop working.
#2 Reframe your inner dialogue
As I said earlier, the bodily sensations that may set the stage for a panic attack depend almost entirely on our interpretations. In other words, a slight irregularity in your heartbeat won’t trigger a panic attack unless you interpret it as a sign of danger.
Since those of us dealing with anxiety tend to catastrophize and see any small change as a potential threat, it’s understandable why we end up dealing with panic attacks.
The point I’m trying to make is that We are the ones who turn discomfort into full-blown panic. We are the ones who go from I’m feeling a bit dizzy to OMG; something’s wrong with me!
And I’m not saying it to lay blame on you. That’s just how anxiety works. That’s how our mind has learned to interpret any sign of threat.
But what if we could change that?
What if we could ‘rethink’ panic attacks?
What if we replace our irrational interpretations of panic with something a little more… realistic and rational.
Since the core of panic resides in our irrational thoughts and fears, the best way to fend off a panic attack before it hits is by reframing our inner dialogue.
What do you tell yourself when you notice a slight change in your breathing or heart rate?
What are the thoughts that go through your head?
Do you tend to catastrophize and imagine yourself going crazy or worse?
Whatever your thoughts might be, try to repeat yourself some of the following:
- Just because I’m feeling a bit uncomfortable doesn’t mean I’m in danger.
- Just because my heartbeat is slightly fast (or irregular) doesn’t mean I’ll have a heart attack.
- Just because I’m feeling slightly anxious and uncomfortable doesn’t mean I’m going crazy.
- Thoughts are just mental constructs. They don’t always reflect my reality.
- Just because I imagine myself going crazy, losing control, or dying doesn’t mean it will happen.
- If I stop making mountains out of molehills, these unpleasant sensations will go away.
- If I focus on breathing calmly and steadily, I will regain control of my mind and body.
A physical symptom CAN’T generate panic unless WE interpret it as dangerous, threatening, or potentially fatal.
So if you want to guard yourself against panic attacks before they strike, start by challenging the thoughts that generate panic, anxiety, and unrest.
One of the main physiological signs that can generate panic attacks – if we interpret it as potentially fatal – is breathing difficulties.
When panic begins to bubble on the surface of our consciousness, our body is in a state of alertness. This, of course, affects our circulatory and respiratory system.
In other words, panic makes us breathe faster which results in hyperventilation, which in turn causes dizziness which will generate even more panic.
That’s the vicious circle of panic attacks. That’s how we make ourselves feel panicky.
To break this circle, we need to retake control of our breathing.
And what better way to do that than with a quick breathing exercise!
Up until recently, most experts would have recommended deep breathing. However, recent studies indicate this technique might actually do more harm than good.
When panic hits and we begin to hyperventilate, the excess oxygen and low carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in our blood are the reason why we feel dizzy.
And what happens when we take deep breaths?
Our oxygen levels remain high while our CO2 levels remain low.
Fortunately, a groundbreaking new technique developed in 2010 at Southern Methodist University aims to help people control their breathing – therefore preventing them from hyperventilating – by doing the exact opposite.
It’s called CART, short for Capnometry-Assisted Respiratory Training.
As panic disorder expert Alicia Meuret explains:
“CART helps patients learn to breathe in such a way as to reverse hyperventilation, a highly uncomfortable state where the blood stream operates with abnormally low levels of carbon dioxide.”
The fundamental principle behind this technique is simple. Instead of taking deep breaths, we must breathe slower and most importantly more shallowly.Groundbreaking technique against panic attacks: Instead of deep breathing, try breathing slower, and more importantly, shallowly! Click To Tweet
That way we restore our oxygen and CO2 levels to normal, putting an end to hyperventilation and dizziness, and avoiding a full-blown panic attack.
Slow and shallow is the answer!
If you want to experiment with other breathing techniques, we compiled a tremendous guide which includes numerous breathing exercises that help ease anxiety. Make sure to check it out if you need to!
#4 Use distractions to take your mind off panic
Aside from breathing slowly and shallowly, we should also take our mind off those irrational and catastrophizing thoughts that generate panic and discomfort.
OMG, I’m losing my mind!
OMG, I can’t control myself!
OMG, I’m going to die!
These are some of the thoughts that turn a slightly unusual sensation into a sign of imminent danger.
In my experience working with people who struggle with anxiety and panic attacks, I found that thought distraction can sometimes work better than thought challenging.
In other words, some people find it easier to distract themselves from the negative ‘buzz’ inside their head by focusing on something else.
But not just anything. It has to be something that’s challenging enough to keep your mind busy.
For example, you can count down from 1000 by 7’s.
1000, 993, 986, 979, 972, 965 and so on.
Trust me, by the time you reach 700, you will forget all about panic.
Once you get used to this exercise and it’s no longer challenging, you can switch to other numbers.
For example, you can count down from 500 by 6’s.
I’m sure you got the idea. 😉
#5 You can’t die from panic attacks!
In the end, the one thing you should always keep in mind is – Your panic attacks cannot kill you!
Yes, you will feel uncomfortable. Yes, you will lose control for a moment. And yes, you will sometimes end up experiencing a full-blown panic attack.
But you can never die from it! You can never lose your mind from too much panic.
Even if everything fails and you end up having a panic attack, don’t make a big deal out of it.
Accept the fact that you’re the kind of person who sometimes deals with anxiety and panic attacks.
It doesn’t make you dysfunctional or less normal.
Dealing with panic attacks is never easy. Granted.
The discomfort associated with this problem can quickly demotivate us and throw us into a spiral of negativity and self-doubt.
But there’s always a way to fight back.
- Learn to identify the telltale signs of an approaching panic attack.
- Be realistic and rational about it.
- Take slow and shallow breaths to counteract the effects of hyperventilation.
- Distract yourself from the irrational “catastrophic” thoughts that are racing through your head.
- And remind yourself regularly that a panic attack isn’t the end of the world.
As always, prevention beats intervention. In other words, the best way to reduce your chances of having a panic attack is by managing your anxiety.
That’s why we’re currently in the process of building a Complete Anxiety Management Program (CAMP) which will help you explore, manage, and prevent anxiety. Stay tuned!
So, what do you think about our tips on how to manage a panic attack? Have you ever tried one of the five techniques mentioned earlier? Which one did you find most useful? Are there any other techniques that have worked well for you?
Leave a comment below!
Clinical Psychologist, Licensed CBT Therapist.
I’m a Clinical Psychologist and a licensed Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy practitioner. My work focuses mainly on strategies designed to manage and prevent the most common mental issues – anxiety, depression, and stress.
When I’m not busy with my therapeutic practice or other work-related activities, I enjoy going out for a jog or hit the nearby gym.
You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or via LinkedIn (link below), or through the Contact Us page.