5 Steps to Stop a Panic Attack Now
Remember that Panic Attacks are a Problem of Perception, Not a Medical Condition
As an intensive care nurse, and then a clinical educator in mental health, I have learned that anxiety is a result of a missed connection between mind and body. Panic and anxiety attacks truly fall between the two disciplines, somewhere between psychological and physical causes. The normal sensations experienced by the body are misinterpreted by the brain as harmful. Sufferers experiencing panic attacks may believe that they are going to die, call 911, or seek out medication to reduce the awful experience. It is helpful to know that anxieties are a problem of perception, not a medical condition.
Yes, it's all in your head—but that doesn't mean it isn't real! It's very real. In this article, you will find several tricks to help you convince your mind and body to handle it.
5 Steps to Stopping a Panic Attack
Before we get to the lengthier explanations, here are the five simple steps for addressing a panic attack in the moment:
- Recognize the symptoms. The first thing you have to do is to recognize that you're having a panic attack. There's no use in fighting it, because that will only make it worse. No, it's not a heart attack, and even though it might feel like you're going to die, you need to remind yourself that no, this is not a medical emergency, no need to call 911: it's just a panic attack.
- Stop what you're doing. Don't just soldier on, because it just won't work. A panic attack will suspend your ability to do anything for awhile, so don't even try. The first thing you need to do is stop what you're doing and find a quiet, private place, if possible. This might be easier to manage if you're sitting at your desk at work, but if you're driving your car, you'll need to pull over as safely and as quickly as possible.
- Watch and wait. Do nothing but focus on your breathing, massage your pressure points, and stretch any muscles that are tense. Think of nothing but making yourself more comfortable. Don't let yourself think about the past or the future or anything else but taking care of yourself at this moment. A panic attack is sort of like a roller coaster ride: No amount of struggling or screaming or trying to escape is going to make it end any quicker.
- When you can, redirect your focus to one simple task. For example, you might perform a simple, repetitive motion like tearing a paper napkin into tiny shreds, rubbing an ice cube against the back of your neck, or lifting a heavy book twenty times. Try to imagine that you are floating above yourself, watching yourself perform this repetitive task. Focus on the small steps.
- If you can, pick up where you left off. Your job now is simply to do the next step of whatever it was that you were doing when the panic attack started, but instead of thinking about the larger picture (I am driving home for a family reunion where I will have to interact with so-and-so), focus only of the next step in the process: I am starting the car, I am putting on my turn signal, I am merging into traffic....
If these attacks recur, the next step is to find a therapist to help and consider anxiety medications.
This is Your Brain on Adrenaline
Everyone has heard about the tiny woman that lifted a car off of her loved one, or the man that ran in front of a speeding car to save a child from certain harm— that is the awesome power of adrenaline. Adrenaline allows your body to quickly run away from a dangerous situation.
When the brain “thinks” anxiety, the body responds with “danger,” and your adrenal glands pump you up with adrenaline. The more panicked you become, the more adrenaline is released, and those feelings of impending doom become more severe. The job of adrenaline is to provide you with a way to escape danger, even if you don't know what that danger may be.
Unfortunately, your body sometimes tells you to run even when there is no real danger, and in those cases, you'll need tricks to convince your body to stop. Follow these steps to help stop your panic attack.
I Hear a Buzzing Sound in My Ears
When you’re hearing that distracting “buzzing” sound in your ears, your brain is reacting to increased adrenaline and the buzzing is the result of “beta brainwave activity.” It may be disorienting and confusing, as the brain is on overdrive and the thought process is overwhelmed by the “speed” effect. Your body is experiencing a natural response to adrenalin and not a physical or mental disease. Distract yourself with external sounds:
- Put on soothing music (not too loud) and try earphones.
- Have a conversation with yourself or someone you trust.
- Distract yourself with a favorite movie or video.
I’m Feeling "Pins and Needles" in My Arms and Hands
Normally, you breathe in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. When your breathing is faster, you exhale more carbon dioxide and it makes you dizzy and may induce the “pins and needles” sensation in your arms, hands, lips, or facial areas.
- First, don't get alarmed. It is not going to hurt you.
- Take slow, deep breaths into a paper bag or cupped hands to restore your carbon dioxide levels and these strange sensations will cease and you will feel better within minutes.
My Heart is Pounding in My Chest
Adrenaline is speeding up your nervous system and heart rate to provide you with the extreme energy to “run!” In modern society, people rarely need to run from anxiety-producing situations. You can’t run away from your angry boss or the fear of your checking account being overdrawn. Stress in modern times does not always benefit from the “flight or fight” response of adrenaline, and you may interpret the natural disturbances as impending doom.
- Don't let your pounding heart scare you even more. It's no different than if you were playing tennis or running a race. Your heart is designed to accommodate the oxygen supply your body demands with ease, and the adrenaline is making your heart beat faster so you can escape an undesirable situation.
- Place both hands in a sink full of water as hot as you can stand it (but not hot enough to burn you). Alternatively, trying placing ice cubes on your forehead, face, or the back of your neck. This will distract your nervous system and slow the flow of adrenaline.
I Can’t Breathe Normally
Normally, people don’t feel themselves breathing. It is a highly evolved action that requires little energy. But during a panic attack, adrenaline expands your lungs so you can take in more oxygen to run away from danger. You perceive the expanded chest as the sensation of difficulty breathing.
- If you can hold a conversation or speak, you are breathing just fine.
- Sit down and rock yourself gently back and forth and inhale and exhale slowly with each movement, this will help you feel your breathing.
- Breathe in through the nose and out through a straw; you will begin to feel the movement of air and sense your breathing.
I Want to Run Away from My Body
In response to adrenaline, your mind is telling your body to run away from danger. The panic response is confusing, and you may feel that your own body is the danger you must run from. Try to be as calm as possible so the adrenaline stops getting the signal of danger. Hold on, your anxiety will be over quickly. Use pressure points to distract the central nervous system.
- Push your thumb on one hand into the space between your thumb and index finger on the other, hard enough to cause discomfort.
- Pinch the bridge of the nose with the thumb and index finger, hard enough to cause discomfort.
I am Trembling and Shaking
The surge of adrenaline is giving you a “rush” and causing you to shake. It is perfectly normal and your body is responding to the chemical. The more fear you experience, the more adrenaline is released into the bloodstream, and the more trembling you will have.
- Your body is reacting in a natural way to fear and it is not going to hurt you.
- Fortunately, the trembling of the body is usually a sign that the adrenaline effects are almost over. So in that sense, the trembling might be a good sign.
Can I Die from a Panic Attack?
People who experience a panic attacks sometimes mistakenly believe they're having a heart attack, and sometimes that worry contributes even further to the stress. Heart palpitations are not necessarily signs of a heart attack. The vague feelings of tightness in your chest are due to the increased supply of adrenaline “speed” and not a malady. Your healthy heart is equipped to beat fast and pound as if you were jogging for exercise, were surprised with a birthday party, or were just notified that you won the lottery.
- You're not going to die. It's just a panic attack.
- Sit down and place your head between your knees and breathe slowly. This will slow your heart rate and relax the chest muscles.
How to Prevent Panic Attacks
Determine the Cause
Unfortunately, anxiety is a necessary evil. Too little creates a person that isn’t motivated enough to take precautions to survive. They generally don’t feel the pressure to find a job, take care of their future, or expend energy to learn new ideas and opportunities. On the other hand, too much can prevent people from learning anything or experiencing new opportunities for growth and success. High anxiety is debilitating and crippling to people that develop phobias and social anxieties that prevent them from enjoying their lives. Most people are somewhere in the middle. Moderate anxiety helps people safely gauge the risks and the rewards. A certain amount is necessary to stay alert and to push passed fear and find the courage to overcome adversity and pursue our dreams.
However, if you find that your anxiety is getting the better of you and holding you back, it's time to take note of your triggers. Knowing what people, places, and situations stir you up will allow you to premeditate and control your reaction to them.
See a Doctor
Get a check-up from your healthcare provider and discuss the anxiety you’re experiencing. There are many anxiety medications available today. If you see a doctor, you will have less worry about your physical health, be able to understand the effects of anxiety, you may opt for a prescription medication, and you'll be less likely to misinterpret the sensations as illness.
Avoid Stimulants and Eat Regularly
If you are prone to panic attacks, you need to take care of your body and achieve a healthy lifestyle that will keep you calm and relaxed. Avoiding certain foods and beverages will reduce the chances of stimulation causing an anxiety attack.
- Avoid caffeine in coffee and cola products.
- Don’t drink alcohol due to the initial stimulant effects.
- Stop smoking: Nicotine is a powerful stimulant.
- Eat protein every four hours and avoid drops in blood sugar.
- Exercise daily: Power walking is an excellent deterrent. Any kind of regular exercise will help.
- Meditate daily and find a higher power that makes you feel safe.
- Get massages that relax you and release natural “feel good” chemicals.
Seek a Therapist Who Understands
If you feel anxiety is overwhelming your life, find a therapist that works extensively with anxiety disorders. It is important they are someone you can trust, and they can help you how to cope in a positive way.
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This content is for informational purposes only and does not substitute for formal and individualized diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed medical professional. Do not stop or alter your current course of treatment. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.