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5 Steps to Stop a Panic Attack Now

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I've worked as an RN for over 25 years in several specialties, including mental health. I've also completed a Master's in nursing research.

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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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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....

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.
Distract your nervous system with hot water.

Distract your nervous system with hot water.

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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.