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3 Ways to Stop a Panic Attack in Its Tracks

Difficulty breathing, heart pounding, chest pain, trembling, feeling like the walls are closing in… having panic attacks or high anxiety is the worst! One thing that I know for certain is that everyone finds relief for panic in different ways so I will offer a few ways that individuals I’ve worked with have found relief while in a moment of panic or high anxiety:

BEFORE ANYTHING, EXHALE COMPLETELY until you can’t breathe out anymore. Even better, make an AUDITORY LONG SIGH (Trust me the sigh helps! It’s another way to cue our brain to start calming down). Get out that stagnant air so you can get some rich plentiful, oxygenated air in. When anxious, the first thing we tend to do is hold our breath (which leads to more feelings of anxiety due to the body’s feedback loop to our brain). Then, when we are having trouble breathing, we tend to take shallow inhalations to catch our breath which also drive up the anxiety response. Exhale, my friends, exhale. Sometimes this is enough to stop panic in its tracks.

APPROACH ONE: Come back to the present moment through orienting to your surroundings. Most people panic because of a trigger related to past trauma or thinking of something bad that could happen in the future. If you’re in a safe environment, take a seat and notice every single detail of your surroundings in a non-judgmental, concrete way:

  • Sights (wall color, texture, light, shadow, objects and people in the room, etc.)
  • Sounds (observe the quiet, sound of refrigerator, people in background, etc.)
  • Smells (food odor, lack of smells, candle, fabric softener, etc)
  • Taste (often fewer details to notice here, but may notice gum, lack of taste, etc)
  • Body contact with calm environment (feeling feet touching ground, sensation of clothes on skin, air, etc)

Why it works: Where we put our attention matters. During a panic, we are often focusing on questions that actually increase panic and anxiety like “When is this panic attack going to end? Am I going crazy? Is this a mental breakdown? Am I dying? Is everyone looking at me? Why can’t I breathe?” We need to get the focus off of our inner thoughts (which will continue to cause more panic) and into connection with our body and the calm surroundings in order to deactivate the parts of the brain that would otherwise continue to elevate the anxiety response. Again, we aren’t focusing on the difficulty breathing and other upsetting body sensations but on our other senses and the connection to the outer environment.

APPROACH TWO: Come back to the present moment through intentional breathing. There are many breathing techniques, but I like to keep it extremely simple:

Starting with an exhalation, count to four (or whatever feels like a comfortable number for you) hold for a moment then count to four on the inhalation and then hold again for a moment then repeat. See if you can allow the breath down into your stomach filling your lungs completely then exhaling completely even tightening the belly to help the empty the lungs.

Why it works: Again, where we set our minds matter. In this exercise, the counting can activate our left hemisphere (logical and linear thinking) and take us out of the emotional overwhelming right brain response we are stuck in during panic and overwhelm. Coming into our body and adjusting our breath to the count and starting to relax further can tell our brain that we are safe and cut off the anxiety feedback loop that is going on between the brain and body.

APPROACH THREE: Come back to the present moment through engaging in any activity that takes some amount of mental concentration and focus (preferably that you enjoy) and immerse yourself in the activity. Examples include:

  • Engaging in a hobby or craft activity, listening to a loved one and providing supportive feedback, cleaning or organizing, doing the dishes, reading an interesting book or article
  • You may return to the task you were doing before the panic attack. For example, if you are at a store, resume shopping, comparing prices, reading labels and asking questions.

Why it works: You guessed it, where we place our attention affects our brain and physiology. Again, we are focusing on the task at hand (and not the overwhelming body sensations or scary thoughts that may be occurring) which is non-threatening. When we engage in such activities or continue life as normal, our body is telling our brain that there is no danger here, we are safe and (slowly yet surely) we are able to return to calm.

WHEN ALL ELSE FAILS, REPEAT. Remember that all panic attacks come to an end. With kind and compassionate self-talk, comfort yourself during this time. This is a hard moment, but you will get through this. Remember, through these exercises, you are changing your brain! Just like going to the gym one time doesn’t yield immediate results, and requires ongoing practice and discipline to see changes, so must one practice these exercises over time to retrain your body and brain to return to calm. If possible, try the first two exercises when you are calm so that you are better able to implement them when you are in a panic attack.

Finally, find an expert sooner than later please! Panic and anxiety is like any other mental process (heard of the brain fact: neurons that fire together, wire together?), the longer you deal with it, the more it gets hard wired into your brain and body and the harder (and more costly) it is to treat. There is a way to heal the root and triggers to anxiety and panic in counseling so that you’re not stuck coping with a panic attack all the time, and I encourage you to seek this help. Unfortunately, I’ve encountered people who wait until their anxiety has taken over their lives (the entire time white knuckling it through life, telling themselves that they can handle it but actually it is just building and growing) and they are unable to work because of it to finally seek help, and it has been needlessly devastating in their lives requiring a long recovery back to calm. Please don’t let that be you, especially when there are interventions that are helpful. If you’d like help, feel free to contact me.

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Denver, Colorado
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