Suffering from panic attacks can be extremely difficult to deal with. They will typically come on suddenly with little to no warning and bring on escalating feelings of dread, terror, and anxiety. There may be physical symptoms involved, too, such as shaking, increased heart rate, and chest pain.
Even though these panic attacks are not life-threatening, they can be very disorienting and both physically and mentally exhausting. Panic attacks are fairly common, with an estimation that roughly 13 percent of people will experience them in their lifetime. While there isn’t much that can be done to predict when a panic attack will occur, there are things that can be done in order to help control, manage and eventually end a panic attack.
What Is a Panic Attack?
First, we have to look at exactly what a panic attack is and what happens. A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear that will trigger physical reactions despite there being no real danger or apparent cause.
Some of the most common symptoms of a panic attack include:
- Sense of impending doom or danger
- Fear of a loss of control
- Rapid increase and pounding heartbeat
- Trembling and shaking
- Shortness of breath or tightness in the throat
- Hot flashes
- Upset stomach or nausea
- Abdominal cramps
- Chest pains
- Headache or migraine
- Dizziness, feeling faint, or being lightheaded
- Numbness or tingling sensations
- Feeling of detachment from reality
- Fear of dying
These symptoms may be the result of a trigger, or they may come completely out of the blue. They will typically peak fairly quickly, in a matter of minutes. Despite not lasting for an extended period of time, they can be incredibly unsettling, and many people report that panic attacks feel similar to a heart attack.
Can You Prevent a Panic Attack?
As of now, there are no ways to prevent panic attacks, but there are a few things that can be done that can decrease the likelihood of having one.
Your physical health will affect your stress tolerance, so maintaining a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, and routinely exercising are all ways to help reduce the chances of a panic attack. Caffeine and alcohol will make the symptoms of a panic attack worse, so avoiding them will take some of the intensity out of an attack.
Since a panic attack shares the physical symptoms of several physical complications, it may be a good idea to get a physical check-up to rule out a physical issue being confused for a panic attack. Seeing a mental health professional and undergoing cognitive behavioral therapy and using relaxation or mindfulness techniques can also help to reduce the frequency of panic attacks.
Cognitive interventions will help to teach you how to control your thinking and mindfulness during a panic attack, therefore allowing you to end them sooner. Behavioral strategies may also include exposure therapy which would gradually expose you to your fears in a safe and controlled manner. By slowly facing your fears, you will eventually reduce their abilities to trigger panic attacks in the event that you encounter them. In some cases, it may be necessary to undergo a medication evaluation. If your anxiety is severe enough then medication could help to reduce the generalized anxiety you may be feeling and make therapy treatments easier to continue.
How To Stop a Panic Attack Once It Starts
In the event of a panic attack there are a few ways to fight back and stop it, While it may take practice and a few tries, if you follow these steps when you have a panic attack then you should be able to end it early:
- Remember that it will pass. When you feel a panic attack about to hit you, or if it has already begun, it will help to remember that these feelings will pass eventually, and there will be no physical harm as a result. Keep thinking about this no matter how scary it may feel at the time. Acknowledge that you are having a panic attack and understand that this is nothing more than a brief period of hyper-concentrated anxiety and will be over soon enough. Panic attacks will typically reach their most intense point within ten minutes, and once they do, the symptoms will begin to fade.
- Take deep breaths. Deep breathing is the first thing you physically will need to do. Panic attacks can cause rapid breathing and increase your heart rate dramatically which will make your breathing shallow and result in chest tightness and pains. Once you start to feel these physical afflictions, it can boost your panic attack and make it worse. Focus your breathing and try to inhale slowly and deeply on each breath. Breathe in deeply from the abdomen using your nose and fill your lungs slowly while counting to three. Exhale slowly, while again counting to three, through your mouth and repeat this process until your breathing has calmed.
- Find a peaceful place. Your environment has a possibility of intensifying your panic attack, and it’s possible that something in it may have triggered your attack. Once your breathing is more under control, try to move to a more peaceful and calming spot, whether it’s leaving a busy room or even just leaning against a wall. When you are in a more quiet and soothing place, you will be able to focus more on keeping your breathing under control and start to perform the other coping strategies.
- Use the 5-4-3-2-1 method. Panic attacks often result in a person feeling a strong detachment from reality. This is what happens when your anxiety overwhelms your other sense. The 5-4-3-2-1 method is a grounding technique and will help you to direct your focus away from your stress and anxiety. This method requires completing these five steps:
- Look at 5 different objects: Think about each one for a while and really pay attention to the small details or patterns they may have. Take note of their color, shape, and the way that the light reflects off of them.
- Feel 4 different things: Notice the sensation of your clothes and how they feel against your body, how the sun feels against your skin, the feeling of the chair you are sitting in or the ground beneath your feet. Pick up an object and carefully examine its weight, texture, and other defining physical qualities.
- Hear 3 different sounds: Pay special attention to the sounds that your mind naturally tunes out, such as the sound of a ticking clock, traffic in the distance or trees as they are blown by the wind.
- Smell 2 different aromas. Try to notice the smells that exist in the air around you, like an air freshener, the scent of your soap on your skin, or freshly mowed grass.
- Taste 1 item. Carry gum, candy, or small snacks in order to complete this step. During your panic attack, pop one of whatever it is that you carry into your mouth and pay close attention to the flavors it provides.
5. Repeat a mantra. A mantra is a word, phrase, or sound that will help you to focus and provide strength. Internally repeating a mantra can help a person to end their panic attack. The mantra can take the form of a reassuring phrase and can be as simple as “this too shall pass.” For some, this mantra may have a spiritual meaning or religious overtones. As you continue to repeat your mantra over and over again, your physical responses will begin to slow, and you should be able to regulate your breathing and relax your muscles.
6. Picture your happy place. The final step is to focus on the place that makes you the happiest and most relaxed. Real or imagined, picture this place in your mind as you say your mantra, and you should begin to feel relaxed, safe, and calm. By this point, your panic attack should be much more under control and nearing its end.
Panic attacks can be a terrifying experience and can come from out of nowhere. Learning to live with this constant threat can be very challenging, but by learning to use a few techniques it’s possible to gain control over them.
While there is no clear cut way to prevent a panic attack, there are plenty of things that can be done to lower the frequency and severity of them. Seeing a mental health professional can be a great benefit to developing techniques to combat panic attacks and education yourself of their origins and your personal triggers.
Medication may be necessary in the event that your panic attacks are severe enough. If you have tried the steps listed above and they have failed, then talk to your psychiatrist about the possibility of being placed on medication to help you.