Last Updated: May 22nd, 2023
During this unprecedented time of uncertainty and stress, between financial concerns, “cabin fever,” and the ongoing threat of a potentially dangerous virus, it’s perfectly normal if you find yourself dealing with increased levels of anxiety. When anxiety seems to overwhelm suddenly, like a tidal wave, we typically refer to it as a panic attack.
How can you tell if what you’re feeling is a panic attack, and what are some ways you can stop it if you feel an attack coming on?
Common Characteristics of a Panic Attack
What, exactly, is a panic attack? A panic attack refers to a sudden episode of intense fear, panic or anxiety that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no imminent danger. It’s disproportionate fear. Effectively, a panic attack fills you with the feeling of imminent doom when there’s actually no immediate threat. Think of it as a false alarm—a misfiring of your “fight-or-flight” instinct, as it were.
In addition to an intense feeling of anxiety, a panic attack usually triggers a variety of physical symptoms, as well. These may include any or all of the following:
- Shortness of breath/hyperventilation
- Rapid, pounding heart rate or palpitations
- Abdominal cramps
- Chest pain
- Feelings of choking
- Feeling light-headed
- Sensations of numbness or tingling in parts of the body
- Fear of dying
The scariest part of having a panic attack may be the physical symptoms themselves—many people describe feeling like they are having a heart attack when it is instead a panic attack. The primary differences between a heart attack and a panic attack are that (a) a panic attack is usually triggered by a wave of fear and (b) panic attacks are usually brief, usually descelarating afting 10 minutes or so. Regardless, panic attacks can be highly disconcerting and uncomfortable, however brief.
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How to stop a panic attack when you feel it coming on
When you feel the signs of a panic attack coming on, it is important to know what you should do in the moment. Panic attacks are not life-threatening, and fortunately, there are practical steps you can take to mitigate them when you feel one happening.
Recognize it and name it
If necessary, say out loud, “I think I’m having a panic attack.” It may seem trivial, but naming the problem has the psychological effect of creating space from it and weakening it. Remind yourself that panic attacks are temporary and that it will pass.
Remember the definition of a panic attack
Remind yourself that this is a feeling of danger, not an actual threat.
Do some deep breathing
The feeling of shortness of breath often stems from shallow breathing during a panic attack. You can combat this by purposely breathing slowly and deeply—inhale for four counts, hold for four counts, exhale for four counts. Focus on taking deep breaths in and out, feeling the air slowly fill your stomach and then slowly empty air from your stomach. Deep breaths will send more oxygen to your brain and your organs and help you relax. Close your eyes to help you focus on your breathing.
Find a focus point for your mind
To counter the overwhelming sense of helplessness that often accompanies a panic attack, some people find it helpful to train their minds on a simple focal point, like a small object in the room or actively listening to a song. You can alsto count backward from 100 by intervals of three.
Focus all your attention on that one thing and be as actively involved with your focus point as possible. The goal here is to be so focused that your anxious feelings melt away in the backgrounds until they disappear. This is a distraction technique.
Pick a focus point in advance so that you can quickly go there during a panic attack.
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Close your eyes and pay attention to your sensation
Another way to reduce overstimulation of the mind is to shut off some input channels for a while. While breathing deeply, simply close your eyes to reduce mental stimulation. Concentrate on your breathing or your sensations.
Witness and challenge your thoughts
There are often negative and untrue thoughts going through our minds during a panic attack. For instance, you might feel like this panic attack is going to “last forever” or that you will die. Before thoughts have spiraled out of control, start by simply witnessing the thoughts objectively. You can pretend the thoughts are a friend talking to you. Listen in on the stories, worries and exaggerations this friend is sharing and try to challenge these thoughts methodically, one at a time.
Another helpful technique during a panic attack is to systematically relax or stretch your muscles. Start by noticing your boldily sensations. Once you notice tightness or pain in one area, say your leg, you can gently massage it and stretch it. Once your leg feels better move to the next set of muscles where you notice sensations and repeat the process until you’ve relaxed your entire body.
What not to do when you have a panic attack
Don’t Overdo it
Do not try to do the 7 activities listed above at once. That’s too much. The whole point is to get your body and mind to calm down and doing too much at once won’t help. Plan what technique you will use when the next panic attack creeps up and stick to it.
Don’t use drugs or alcohol
Drugs or alcohol might makes the panic attack last longer or intensify the symptoms.
Don’t Let your Thoughts Control You
During a panic attack, anxiety tends to run high and thoughts tend to spiral out of control. Use one of the 7 techniques outlined above to not get lost in your own anxious thoughts.
Getting More Help
If you find yourself having repeated panic attacks, especially ones that seem difficult to control, they may be fueled by some underlying issues that need to be addressed in order to give you relief. There is support and treatment that can help you to control panic attacks and prevent them from happening in the future.
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Talking to a licensed therapist can help you explore why you have panic attacks and what you can do to diminish their occurrence and intensity. We currently offer online therapy sessions. Schedule a phone call with a member of our team to learn more about how one of our anxiety therapist can help get your panic attack under control.