Frequent panic attacks can be crippling and devastating. They can keep you from living your life and enjoying the people in it. The good news, though, is they’re highly treatable. Armed with the right coping tools and information, you’ll understand how to stop a panic attack, in public or in private, the next time you experience one. Controlling your panic attacks, instead of letting them control you, will feel liberating.
Before finding out how to stop a panic attack, it’s important to understand what a panic attack is first. Too often, people confuse a panic attack with an anxiety attack. One of the biggest distinguishing factors in a panic attack vs anxiety attack is how long the attack lasts. A panic attack typically lasts a couple of minutes while an anxiety attack tends to build over time. Symptoms of a panic attack include:
- increased heart rate
- shortness of breath
- chills (or hot flashes depending on the person)
- chest pain
- sudden intense fear
While most panic attacks usually last 5 to 10 minutes, some have repeated panic attacks in quick succession, making the attack feel much longer.
Learn how to stop a panic attack fast and where you can find help preventing them here.
10 Ways to Stop a Panic Attack
There isn’t one specific trick that can teach you how to stop having a panic attack in its tracks. Instead, you might have to experiment a bit to see what works best for you. While working with a therapist tends to be the best way to develop individualized strategies, there are a few additional things you can try.
1. Recognize you’re having a panic attack
While panic attack symptoms would vary depending on the patient, there are some common panic symptoms you can look out for. 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,” can help. The more you practice recognizing when they’re beginning to occur, the better equipped you’ll be to know how to stop having a panic attack as soon as the next one occurs. Knowing the warning signs can help subside recurrent panic attacks.
Try to take slow, deep breaths if you can. Many free or low-cost phone apps offer deep breathing technique exercises to guide you. Taking a deep breath in the midst of a panic attack can help you gain composure.
3. Find a focus point
Some people get more anxious when they focus on their breathing. If you find this is true, focus on things outside yourself. For example, you could look for things around you that are your favorite color or try focusing your senses by identifying three to five things you can touch, hear, or smell.
4. Give your brain a task
A breathing exercise can do wonders for your body in general. Having anxious thoughts can hinder how you deal with panic attack symptoms. 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.
5. Visualize happy
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 like the beach or a meadow with a stream, 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 works because it’s getting your brain on a different track.
6. 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.
7. 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 in the first place.
8. Stand up for yourself
It can be difficult but remember that every time you stand up for yourself, you’re getting stronger. Take baby steps if you need to. Every time you leave a situation, speak up if you’re uncomfortable, or ask for help, you’re reassuring yourself that you have the tools you need to survive and know how to stop a panic attack fast, regardless of where you are or who you’re with.
9. Think positively
It might sound silly, but thinking positive has real power. Silently (or you can vocalize it if that feels more powerful to you), tell your negative thoughts to go away. Think back to times in the past you’ve been able to overcome an anxious situation or time.
10. Use muscle relaxation techniques
Progressive muscle relaxation can help alleviate tension and stress. To do it, focus on tensing muscle groups with each breath in and relaxing with every exhale. Move methodically throughout your body, using slow, measured breaths.
How to Prevent a Panic Attack
There are distress tolerance skills that can help stop panic attacks like using ice or an ice pack on your face and hands, deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation, or intense exercise such as running or jump rope. Just as important as these coping strategies, is learning how to prevent panic attacks from happening in the first place. Use the following prevention techniques as often as you can throughout your day. You might find that you’re able to significantly reduce the frequency of your attacks.
Focus on your physical health
Your physical health affects stress tolerance, so working out regularly can be hugely beneficial in managing stress.
Maintain a healthy diet full of vitamin-rich, fresh foods. Avoid processed foods, items that are high-sugar, and those that are full of unhealthy fats.
Get enough sleep
Good sleep habits go a long way. Try to keep a consistent sleep schedule and make sleeping a priority.
Caffeine is a known stimulant that can make you anxious and add to your overall stress when you consume too much. Drink coffee and other caffeinated drinks in moderation.
Avoid or limit alcohol
Drinking in moderation can be fine. However, if you drink excessively, or if you use alcohol as a way to decompress or as a coping tool, you’ll probably find that it ends up adding to your stress level.
You may consider seeking out help from a mental health professional. Anxiety can affect many areas of your life, but fortunately, therapy can be extremely effective in treating or reducing symptoms. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a therapeutic technique known to combat many mental health conditions, including anxiety. Another effective tool is exposure therapy, where behavioral strategies include gradually exposing you to your fears safely so you can build tolerance and learn to navigate things that may be resulting in your panic attacks.
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.
“Understanding what generally causes a panic attack for you specifically will be helpful in preventing one from occurring or lessening the impact of it. Things like stress and fatigue can contribute to the level of anxiety one usually encounters. Recognizing the triggers can allow a person to recognize when a panic attack may occur and be vigilant about it. Medication, along with coping techniques, can be helpful in managing panic attacks.”
See your doctor regularly
Since panic attacks mimic symptoms of other health problems, make routine, regular checkups a priority to rule out other causes of your physical symptoms.
Self-care and relaxation techniques, such as yoga, and mindful meditation, can help reduce or prevent severe panic attacks. Mindfulness activities and structured relaxation exercises can reduce both mental and physical symptoms that result in panic attacks.
Getting Help for Panic Attacks
Getting help is key in learning how to stop a panic attack. You can get the tools you need to alleviate symptoms, manage future panic attacks when they occur, and potentially even reduce the frequency of attacks. You can find help through a therapist or other mental health care provider, your primary doctor, or a support group or mental health treatment facility or program.
If you’ve decided to seek help from your doctor or therapist, they might:
- Suggest regular talk therapy
- Ask you if you’ve considered medication
- Suggest you cut back on caffeine and alcohol
- Recommend a regular exercise routine
- Encourage you to maintain a healthy diet
- Suggest you practice mindfulness and other calming practices
“Working with a mental health professional who is familiar with anxiety disorders can be helpful in learning and building the coping skills that are appropriate for you personally; no one coping skill is right for everyone. Medication management with a prescriber can also be added to help with managing panic attacks but shouldn’t be the only method we rely on for managing panic attacks, as there are practices and tools you can learn that can support you as well.”
If you suffer from panic attacks, you might feel like you’ve totally lost control of your life, but there is help available in the form of therapy whether it’s online therapy or a support group. You don’t have to suffer any longer. Using what you’ve learned here is the first step toward managing and overcoming your next panic attack.
1. NIMH » Anxiety Disorders. Nimh.nih.gov. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders#part_145336. Published 2018. Accessed January 4, 2022.2.
2. NIMH » Panic Disorder: When Fear Overwhelms. Nimh.nih.gov. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/panic-disorder-when-fear-overwhelms. Published 2016. Accessed January 4, 2022.