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Panic attacks can be sudden and overpowering. Knowing what to do when they arise can reduce their severity or help stop them.
Panic attacks are relatively common, with one article stating that around 13% of people will experience one in their lifetime.
People cannot always predict when a panic attack is going to arise, but making a plan of what to do for when they do occur can help a person feel more in control and make panic attacks easier to manage.
This article will look at ways to stop a panic attack, along with some general methods for reducing anxiety. It will also look at how to help when someone else is having a panic attack.
Panic attacks can create various physical and emotional symptoms.
Physical symptoms may include:
- rapid breathing
- a racing heartbeat
Emotional symptoms may include:
- feelings of fear and anxiety
- intense, repetitive worrying
- a feeling of impending doom
The sections below will look at 13 methods that people can use to help regain control and reduce the symptoms of a panic attack.
1. Remember that it will pass
During a panic attack, it can help to remember that these feelings will pass and cause no physical harm, however scary it feels at the time.
Try acknowledging that this is a brief period of concentrated anxiety, and that it will be over soon.
Panic attacks tend to reach their most intense point within 10 minutes of their onset, and then the symptoms will begin to subside.
2. Take deep breaths
Deep breathing can help bring a panic attack under control.
Panic attacks can cause rapid breathing, and chest tightness can make the breaths shallow. This type of breathing can make feelings of anxiety and tension worse.
Instead, try to breathe slowly and deeply, concentrating on each breath. Breathe deeply from the abdomen, filling the lungs slowly and steadily while counting to 4 on both the inhale and the exhale.
People can also try using 4-7-8 breathing, or “relaxing breath.” With this technique, the person breathes in for 4 seconds, holds the breath for 7 seconds, then exhales slowly for 8 seconds.
It is worth noting that for some people, deep breathing can make panic attacks worse. In these cases, the person can try focusing on doing something they enjoy instead.
3. Smell some lavender
A soothing scent can help relieve anxiety by tapping into the senses, helping the person stay grounded and giving them something to focus on.
Lavender is a common traditional remedy known for bringing about a sense of calm relaxation. Many studies report that lavender can help relieve anxiety.
Try holding the oil under the nose and inhaling gently, or dabbing a little onto a handkerchief to smell. This oil is widely available online. However, people should only purchase it from trusted retailers.
If the person dislikes the smell of lavender, they could try replacing it with another essential oil that they prefer, such as bergamot orange, chamomile, or lemon.
4. Find a peaceful spot
Sights and sounds can often intensify a panic attack. If possible, try to find a more peaceful spot. This could mean leaving a busy room or moving to lean against a nearby wall.
Sitting in a quiet place will create some mental space, and it will make it easier to focus on breathing and other coping strategies.
5. Focus on an object
When a person becomes overwhelmed with distressing thoughts, feelings, or memories, concentrating on something physical in the environment can help them feel grounded.
Focusing on one stimulus can reduce other stimuli. As the person looks at the item, they may want to think about how it feels, who made it, and what shape it is. This technique can help reduce the symptoms of a panic attack.
If the person has recurring panic attacks, they can carry a specific familiar object to help ground them. This may be something like a smooth stone, a seashell, a small toy, or a hair clip.
Grounding techniques such as this can help people dealing with panic attacks, anxiety, and trauma. Learn more about grounding techniques here.
6. The 5-4-3-2-1 method
Panic attacks can make a person feel detached from reality. This is because the intensity of the anxiety can overtake other senses.
The 5-4-3-2-1 method is a type of grounding technique and a type of mindfulness. It helps direct the person’s focus away from sources of stress.
To use this method, the person should complete each of the following steps slowly and thoroughly:
- Look at 5 separate objects. Think about each one for a short while.
- Listen for 4 distinct sounds. Think about where they came from and what sets them apart.
- Touch 3 objects. Consider their texture, temperature, and what their uses are.
- Identify 2 different smells. This could be the smell of your coffee, your soap, or the laundry detergent on your clothes.
- Name 1 thing you can taste. Notice whatever taste is in your mouth, or try tasting a piece of candy.
7. Repeat a mantra
A mantra is a word, phrase, or sound that helps with focus and provides strength. Internally repeating a mantra can help a person come out of a panic attack.
The mantra can take the form of reassurance and may be as simple as, “This too shall pass.” For some, it may have a more spiritual meaning.
As the person focuses on gently repeating a mantra, their physical responses will slow, allowing them to regulate their breathing and relax their muscles.
8. Walk or do some light exercise
Walking can remove a person from a stressful environment, and the rhythm of walking may also help them regulate their breathing.
Moving around releases hormones called endorphins that relax the body and improve mood. Taking up regular exercise can help reduce anxiety over time, which may lead to a reduction in the number or severity of panic attacks.
9. Try muscle relaxation techniques
Another symptom of panic attacks is muscle tension. Practicing muscle relaxation techniques may help limit an attack. This is because if the mind senses that the body is relaxing, other symptoms — such as rapid breathing — may also diminish.
A technique called progressive muscle relaxation is a popular method for coping with anxiety and panic attacks.
This involves tensing up and then relaxing various muscles in turn. To do this:
- Hold the tension for 5 seconds.
- Say “relax” as you release the muscle.
- Let the muscle relax for 10 seconds before moving on to the next muscle.
10. Picture your happy place
A person’s happy place should be somewhere they would feel most relaxed. The specific place will be different for everybody. It will be somewhere they feel relaxed, safe, and calm.
When an attack begins, it can help to close the eyes and imagine being in this place. Think of how calm it is there. People can also imagine their bare feet touching the cool soil, hot sand, or soft rugs.
11. Take any prescribed medications
Depending on the severity of panic attacks, a doctor may prescribe a use-as-needed medication. These medications typically work fast.
However, these drugs can be highly addictive, so people should use them exactly as their doctor prescribes. Taken with opioids or alcohol, they can have life threatening adverse effects.
A doctor may also describe selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, which can help prevent panic attacks from occurring in the first place.
12. Tell someone
If panic attacks frequently occur in the same environment, such as a workplace or social space, it may be helpful to inform somebody and to let them know what kind of support they can offer if it happens again.
If an attack happens in public, telling another person can help. They may be able to locate a quiet spot and prevent others from crowding in.
13. Learn your triggers
A person’s panic attacks may often be triggered by the same things, such as enclosed spaces, crowds, or problems with money.
By learning to manage or avoid their triggers, people may be able to reduce the frequency and intensity of panic attacks.
Everyone can benefit from reducing the impact of anxiety. Diminishing general levels of anxiety will also help prevent panic attacks.
The following strategies may help:
- Practice breathing exercises: Learning to practice slow, deep breathing as a general relaxation method outside of panic attacks makes it easier to practice deep breathing during an attack.
- Try meditation: Regular meditation is a great way to relieve stress, promote peacefulness, and regulate breathing.
- Speak to a trusted friend: Social support can ease a person’s anxiety and make them feel understood and less alone.
- Get regular exercise: This can help promote deeper sleep, get rid of built-up tension, and produce endorphins, which make the person feel happier and more relaxed.
- Try talking therapy: If anxiety or panic is regularly impacting a person’s life, a mental health professional can offer support, reassurance, and advice. Therapy can help people discover the causes of their anxiety and develop effective coping methods.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy: This type of therapy can give people the tools they need to reduce stress and increase their tolerance to feared situations. It may be an effective treatment method for panic attacks.
Making key lifestyle changes can also help reduce the impact of anxiety. The following strategies can help:
- avoiding or reducing smoking, alcohol, and caffeine
- following a healthful diet
- getting a good night’s sleep
- staying hydrated
Throughout history, people have used herbs to treat anxiety and depression. Some of the most popular herbal remedies are available to purchase online, including kava extract, passiflora, and valerian.
Research into the effects of herbal remedies is ongoing. People should always speak to a doctor before using this type of remedy.
Meditation may work well for one person, while exercise may be better for another. Try different strategies and see what works best.
This section will provide some tips on how to help a person having a panic attack.
First, try talking them through a few of the methods above. For instance, help them find a peaceful spot, encourage them to take slow, deep breaths, and ask them to focus on a nearby object.
If you do not know the person, introduce yourself and ask them if they need help. Ask them if they have had a panic attack before, and if so, what helps them regain control.
People can also try the following tips when someone else is having a panic attack:
- Try to remain calm. This will help them relax a little more.
- Suggest moving to a quiet spot nearby and help them find one. Sitting down in a comfortable place can be very effective, as it allows them to focus on their breathing.
- Remind the person that panic attacks always end.
- Stay positive and nonjudgmental. Avoid validating any negative statements.
- Try having a gentle, friendly conversation to distract them and help them feel safe.
- Avoid telling them to calm down or telling them that there is nothing to worry about, as this devalues their emotions.
- Stay with them. If they feel that they need to be alone, make sure they remain visible.
Panic attacks can be frightening and disorienting. If someone is worried about a panic attack, they can talk to their doctor for advice and reassurance.
A person may want to talk to a healthcare professional if their panic attacks:
- are recurring and unexpected
- are getting in the way of daily life
- do not pass with home coping methods
A doctor can talk a person through both short-term coping methods and long-term treatment options.
The symptoms of a panic attack can resemble those of a heart attack. These include chest pain, anxiety, and sweating. If someone suspects a heart attack or stroke, the person needs immediate medical attention.
It is not always possible to predict when a panic attack is going to occur, but having a plan in place for when they do occur can help the person feel more in control.
Finding a peaceful spot and practicing deep breathing methods and grounding techniques can help people regain control during a panic attack.
People can also adopt long-term strategies to reduce the occurrence or frequency of panic attacks. These can include making healthful lifestyle choices, trying therapy, and learning how to manage anxiety in daily life.