How to Stop Panic Attacks

“To free ourselves from panic, we need to be willing to have it” – Psychologist Nick Wignall

Don’t worry, I won’t just tell you to take deep breaths (although a grounding activity may be helpful to you right now). 

If you’re someone who experiences reoccurring panic attacks, then you don’t need me to tell you how scary they can be! Typically, panic attacks show up via various physical sensations that seemingly come out of nowhere (pounding heart, shaking, nausea, lightheadedness, numbness, hot flashes, and the list goes on). Panic attacks usually last about 5-10 minutes, though they can certainly feel like an eternity! So, what the heck is going on during a panic attack?  

When you believe that you’re in danger, your body reacts in a truly amazing way to protect you. The symptoms you experience during a panic attack are your body’s way of preparing you to handle danger (through fighting, fleeing, freezing, or fawning). In a survival situation, this is a crucial response for your body to have so that you can stay alive. However, in day-to-day life, this bodily response is not so helpful. 

What causes panic attacks? 

Many potential factors can cause panic attacks, but there is one common theme that can keep them coming back over and over: anxiety about the experience of anxiety  

A panic attack in a non-survival scenario is the experience of feeling like you’re in danger. In most of those cases, it’s highly likely that you’re actually safe. The real problem is not the anxiety itself nor the physical symptoms of anxiety; it’s the belief that you have about those sensations. Perhaps you’re afraid you’ll be embarrassed if you have a panic attack in public. Perhaps you’re afraid that you’ll lose control and be sick. Perhaps you’re afraid that one of these days, the panic attack will actually be a heart attack, and because you didn’t catch it, you’ll die.  

Anxiety wants to keep you safe. To do so, it’ll often highlight the worst-case scenario, getting you to overthink your situation. This may lead to avoiding trying new things, social engagements, and/or even leaving the house. Once you’ve started to avoid things due to fear of anxiety, the panic will likely intensify. This is because avoidance of something due to anxiety confirms to your brain that what you’re avoiding really is dangerous. The more you avoid, the more your panic gets fed. 

How to stop panic attacks? 

From now on, think of your panic attacks as your ex that you’ve decided you’ve finally gotten over. Next time those all-to-familiar panic attack sensations come around, you don’t even care. Even though your heart is beating out of your chest, and you feel like you might throw up, it’s whatever! I’m over you!  

Jokes aside, the idea is to stop trying to get rid of your panic attacks. By resisting them, you’re welcoming them. By reacting like they’re a big deal, they’re going to be a big deal.

Here are 4 things you can do instead of trying to control, calm, or avoid panic attacks: 

1. Describe Your Experience

  • Get curious about what’s going on. What are you feeling? Where are you feeling your sensations? Did something trigger them? Aim to be non-judgmental and compassionate with yourself.  

2. Move Around A Little

  • Is it a panic attack or a heart attack? Try moving around a bit. If moving around makes you feel a little bit better, this is a sign that you’re experiencing anxiety and not a physical condition. 

3. Talk Yourself Through It

  • Affirmations can work wonders in the moment of feeling overwhelmed by anxious thoughts. Here are some that can be helpful:
    • This feels uncomfortable, but this is not dangerous. 
    • This is passing. I can handle this.  
    • This is just a sensation. I am safe.  
    • I can feel the fear and do it anyway.  
    • Hello *insert anxiety symptom*! It’s ok, you can feel discomfort if you need to. 

4. Try to Induce A Panic Attack

  • Bring it on, Panic!” By exposing yourself to the sensations of a panic attack, you may find that your fear begins to diminish. This is because when you face your anxiety head-on, you’re training your brain to handle the feared sensations. Essentially, you’re getting yourself more comfortable with being uncomfortable.
  • Routinely doing this can desensitize you to your trigger(s), making you less upset by the same experience that would have caused full-blown panic. Here are a few ways this can be done; aim to re-create the symptoms that you usually experience: 
    • Revisiting places that have made you feel panic 
    • Hyperventilate on purpose  
    • Sit in a very hot place for a few minutes  
    • Spin around in a chair for a minute 
    • Anything that you can think of that would re-create your panic symptoms

The theme of these coping skills is acceptance. Accepting that you might have a panic attack, and if you do, you can ride the wave and be ok. Rather than fighting it, allowing this uncertainty may be the change needed to live the life you want. This is tough stuff, so be gentle and patient with yourself! 

If you’re experiencing frequent panic attacks and self-help isn’t working, you may have a panic disorder. A therapist can provide the counseling you need to help you confront and manage your trauma in a healthy way. Click here to schedule an assessment and get matched with a therapist who can help you .  

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