Have you ever experienced a sudden overwhelming sense of fear, anxiety or panic? If you have, you might be wondering how to stop a panic attack.

We hear it all the time, sprinkled into everyday conversation. “Oh, I had a full on panic attack when I realised I was running late for that meeting” says a friend, casually. The term ‘panic attack’ has become part of common language to describe feeling nervous, anxious, or agitated about something.  While writing this blog and looking for an image to go with it, I encountered yet again how lightly most people take the term. But as sufferers know, the reality is more difficult to shrug off.

What is a panic attack?

The symptoms of a panic attack vary from heart pounding and trouble breathing, to shaking hands and knees, and a sudden and overwhelming urge to go to the bathroom.  You might feel dizzy or spaced out and have trouble speaking.  Even though you’re physically fine, it can feel overwhelming and like you’re dying. They generally don’t last for very long, with the peak intensity lasting for between 5 and 20 minutes, but psychologically they feel like they’re going on for a long time and take a while to recover from.

They’re caused by the body dumping massive amounts of stress hormones into the bloodstream, activating the fight-or-flight response.  Your body is basically preparing itself to either fight something massive and scary with big pointy teeth… or to run to hell away from it.  Once you’ve experienced it and realise that’s what’s happening, it starts to make a bit more sense and even though it might feel physically difficult to cope with it becomes much less frightening mentally.

Because the feelings of a panic attack are so unpleasant, many people start to avoid the situations where they might occur.  That means they stop going to crowded places, reduce their studying, stop traveling and their lives get smaller and somewhat less happy and fulfilled. Sometimes people who have never experienced anxiety before have a panic attack when they are in a situation which makes them nervous, but they’re often found in combination with other anxiety related issues.

Often, when we are going through a really stressful period of time (like a global pandemic and lockdown), we can start to experience symptoms that are similar to panic attacks, or even full blown panic attacks, that totally disappear once the stressful situation is resolved.  When this happens it’s important to remember that there is a clear link to a situation, and that we can either remove ourselves from the situation or make changes to how we think about the situation to stop or reduce the feelings of panic and discomfort.

However they show up – once or twice or repeatedly, and regardless of what other mental health conditions you might be experiencing, there are a range of strategies that you can use to reduce the symptoms of panic, allowing you to start to enjoy your life again.

Learn more about what’s happening in your body and mind

Education is empowering.  Finding out what’s going on and a few tricks and tools to help you manage those feelings of panic can help you regain a sense of control and certainty about situations. Learning about the stress response and flight, flight and freeze can help you understand the importance of regularly attending to your stress levels.  Although they might feel like it, panic attacks don’t happen out of the blue, so take some time to study up on what the symptoms of anxiety and stress are and learn to recognise them before they escalate.

Be kind to yourself

Rather than seeing those moments of panic as a disaster, how would you feel differently if you saw them as a sign that you would benefit from speaking to yourself more kindly or not taking on so many responsibilities? What are you telling yourself about the situation that’s heightening your response? What would you say to a friend or a child who was so distressed? I bet you’d speak to them quite differently to how you speak to yourself.

Learn how to breathe and practise often

In my clinic I talk to all my clients about how they’re breathing.  When they come in for their fist sessions I can see that they’re hunched inwards, holding their bodies stiff and only breathing into the top portion of their lungs.  Training yourself to slow down, to consciously allow your breath to expand your ribs in all directions (out to the sides and the back) and to breathe deeply enough to push your diaphragm down into your stomach is a very simple tool, although it’s not always easy to consistently put into practice!

When you are breathing slowly and deeply you are sending a powerful message to your autonomic nervous system that everything is okay. The parasympathetic nervous system activates and a whole host of lovely calming, repairing and relaxing chemicals cascade through your brain and bloodstream. Even the most hair raising situation becomes more manageable when you’re breathing properly.

To really nail this, I recommend practising several times a day for about 5 minutes a time.  All you need is somewhere that is relatively quite where you’ll be undisturbed and then begin the process of checking in to your body and making sure that everything is moving correctly as you breathe in and out.

Meditation and Mindfulness

Following on from breathing, practising meditation or mindfulness is extremely helpful in stopping panic attacks.  Most of the time when we are panicking about something it’s about the idea of what might happen in the future or becoming distressed over something that’s happened in the past.  Mindfulness brings our focus back to the present moment and what we can see, hear, touch, smell and taste. Rather than letting ourselves get caught up in stories, the goal of mindfulness is allow ourselves to be, to notice our thoughts and accept that they are there without buying into their truth or value.

A simple tool to refocus the mind when you notice it starting to race away is to count 5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things your can touch, 2 things you can smell and one thing you can taste (usually the inside of your mouth unless you’re lucky enough to be somewhere with a delicious treat). This switching of focus allows you some time and space to clam yourself, short circuiting the building of throughts and worries that can lead to panic.

Talk to someone who is supportive and non-judgemental

One of the worst things that we can do for our mental health is to try and handle everything by ourselves.  If you don’t have supportive friends and family, there’s a range of different counseling services available to help people at any price point. I regularly work with people who are experiencing anxiety, trauma, stress and panic with excellent results.

Getting help and support before the problem becomes ingrained is important. There are many different tools and techniques that can help you change your perception of anxious feelings and help yourself find balance and it will take some experimentation for you to find what works for you.

If you’d like to reach out and have a chat, I’d love to hear from you.