A panic attack is an intense and frightening experience. To help you through one, here are my top 5 steps to stop a panic attack.
Up to 40% of people experience a panic attack at some point in their life, though many don’t even know what’s happening. So first of all, let’s look at what a panic attack is.
A panic attack is a period of intense anxiety, in which a person feels suddenly overwhelmed with physical sensations of fear. Have you ever suddenly felt — perhaps after a stressful incident or time, or usually out of the blue — your heart start to beat extremely fast, your mind & concentration become fuzzy or disoriented, shortness of breath, dizziness, and your hands sweaty and shaky? These are all common symptoms of a panic attack, and the experience can be incredibly distressing. You might think you’re going to pass out or even die, and this panic completely overwhelms you.
A panic attack can occur anywhere — yep, even in public — and may last for a few minutes or up to half an hour. Although the panic attack takes an emotional toll for much longer. I know from personal experience that I’ve avoided public places like university and public transport for fear that I might have a panic attack.
However, over the years I’ve learned how to help overcome panic attacks, and I want to share my tips with you in the hope that I can help someone who experiences this very common occurrence. Most importantly, I want to stress that if you have, or do, experience panic attacks, you are not weird, weak or crazy. It is simply a physical response to a ‘threat’ — whether that be the stresses of work, uni, school or your personal life. And perhaps by following these 5 steps below, you can not only identify a panic attack, but also help stop them.
1. Acknowledge the Panic Attack
Out of the blue your heart begins to race, you can’t breath properly and you’re feeling dizzy. Instead of focusing on the fear and the physical symptoms, take a big breath and remind yourself, ‘For some reason I am feeling afraid and I accept this. I am not in danger, even though my mind thinks I am. I acknowledge this panic and I will get through this.’ By acknowledging the panic attack and accepting its presence, you are gaining awareness over your physical panic reactions, which will help you to stop the continuation of your panic attack.
2. Use Breathing Techniques
Although there are many breathing exercises to help stop a panic attack, my favourite breathing technique is Belly Breathing: When you’re feeling a panic attack coming on, no matter if you’re in public or at home, close your eyes and place one hand on your chest and one on your belly, and begin to breathe. Most likely you will feel your chest rise rapidly, which doesn’t help ease panic symptoms. Focus on breathing into your stomach, and feel your hand on your stomach rise and fall. Now try to slow your breath down, feeling the way your belly expands as the air comes in, and the way your belly falls when you exhale. This action of focusing on your breath really helps calm your body and mind, as we are focusing on something present and real – your breath.
3. Turn away Negatives Thoughts + Feelings
‘I’m weak, what is wrong with me, I hate that this is happening to me’ are all things you may think and feel, and which make you feel worse. Again, try to accept that this panic attack is here and that although you feel afraid, this feeling will not last. Work with yourself, not against. Replace those catastrophic thoughts with calming ones: ‘This will pass and I will feel better. It’s okay to feel afraid. I am human.’
4. Stay in the Present
When you’re about to have a panic attack, you’re likely to be thinking of something bad or stressful that happened in the past, or of something that could happen in the future. These thoughts usually always start with ‘What if?…’ and are detrimental for helping stop a panic attack. Replace the ‘What if?’s with calming, positive thoughts like the ones above. Focus on the now, the present, and on the anchor of the present: your breath.
5. Don’t flee
Physiologically, this is what your brain wants when you’re experiencing a panic attack. Your brain is triggering the physical symptoms of the ‘flight or fight’ response — but you’re not about to be eaten by a bear or need to run from a raging fire, so this feeling of panic and needing to flee is not required. Instead of fleeing from where you’re having a panic attack (or avoiding public spaces, social situations, etc. afterwards in fear that a panic attack might occur), sit and allow your symptoms to pass by using the above tips. Running away from a situation will not help your anxiety, but using these 5 steps to help stop a panic attack will give you confidence in your ability to cope.
So I really hope these steps help you stop a panic attack and give you the tools to prevent them from happening in the future. As a last note, if you’re feeling stressed I recommend taking a look at my How To De-Stress blog post, as well my post about taking time out to Do Things That Make You Happy.