A panic attack is a disable feeling of acute anxiety and if you’ve ever had one, you know how debilitating they can be. The world seems to stop while you’re overcome by intense fear and frightening physical symptoms. What’s worse, panic attacks tend to happen repeatedly.
While it’s tempting to seek an easy fix, lasting improvement requires you to understand panic attacks and how to manage them in the long run.
What is Panic?
First, let’s look at what happens during a panic attack. Then, we’ll examine treatment.
Diagnostic symptoms of a panic attack include:
- Heart palpitations, pounding heart, or increased heart rate
- Shortness of breath
- Chest discomfort
- Nausea or stomach upset
- Dizziness or light-headedness
- Chills or heat sensations
- Numbness or tingling
- Feelings of unreality or being detached from oneself
- Fear of losing control
- Fear of dying
These symptoms may have a clear trigger or they may come out of the blue. They typically peak quickly, in just a few minutes. No matter how quickly they end, however, they’re incredibly unsettling. Many people report that panic attacks feel similar to a heart attack.
Let’s explore how to prevent them from happening.
How to Prevent Panic Attacks
Unfortunately, many times you just have to wait for a panic episode it to run its course, so prevention is just as important as any in-the-moment coping strategy.
Your physical health affects stress tolerance, so maintain a healthy diet, good sleep habits, and adequate exercise. Avoid caffeine or alcohol if they make your symptoms worse. In addition, since panic attacks mimic symptoms of other health problems, get a checkup to rule out other causes of your physical symptoms.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy, relaxation, and mindfulness work can also help. Cognitive interventions teach you how to control your thinking during panic attacks. Behavioral strategies often include gradually exposing you to your fears safely. Mindfulness activities and structured relaxation exercises can reduce both mental and physical symptoms.
In some situations, your therapist may recommend a medication evaluation. If your anxiety is severe, medication can reduce the generally anxious feelings so you can do the work of therapy more effectively. Eventually, though, therapy alone may be enough.
How to Stop a Panic Attack
There isn’t one specific trick that stops panic in its tracks. Instead, you might have to experiment a bit to see what works best for you. While working with a therapist is the best way to develop individualized strategies, here are a few additional things you can try:
Recognize you’re having a panic attack
When you first notice the racing heart or rapid breathing, remind yourself this is a physical process that will run itself out in a few minutes. Repeating a phrase, such as “I will be OK” or “this is temporary” may help.
Try to take slow, deep breaths if you can do so. Many free or low-cost phone apps offer deep breathing exercises to guide you.
Find a focus point
Some people get more anxious when they focus on their breathing. In that case, focus on things outside yourself. For example, you could look for everything around you that’s your favorite color, or focus your senses by identifying three to five things you can touch, hear, or smell.
Give your brain a task
If you find sensory information overwhelming, try closing your eyes and giving your brain something to focus on. You might count backwards by 7s or say the alphabet backwards. A mildly challenging mental task can interrupt your brain’s negative thoughts.
Prepare a mental list of imagery you can rely on to calm yourself in a panic. While many people try to visualize generic happy places, another useful trick is to recall a favorite memory. Go through the event in your mind from start to finish, imagining as much detail as possible, including sounds, smells, colors, textures. Again, this gets your brain in a different track.
Rely on a friend
Have contacts you can reach during panic attacks to help talk you down. A simple text or phone call might be enough to pull you out of the terror.
Identify safe spaces
If you know you tend to have panic attacks in public spaces, identify potential calm-down spots. This can be a restroom, a dressing room, or your favorite area of a store. Sometimes just having a plan reduces anxiety enough that you’re less likely to have a panic attack.
Panic attacks are terrifying but common. The good news is, there are many treatment options available. Remember, there is no magic bullet cure, but with practice and better understanding of yourself, you can successfully manage panic attacks.