I’ll never forget where I was when I had my first panic attack. I woke up in the middle of the night with my heart racing, hands trembling, arms tingling, and forehead sweating profusely. I paced around my bedroom screaming because I didn’t know what was going on and it quite literally felt like I was having a heart attack. At the time, I didn’t know how to stop a panic attack, so I just hoped it would subside on its own. I can’t tell you specifically what triggered my panic attack, but after a few sessions with my therapist, we think it was stress-induced, thanks to my never-ending to-do list.
“A panic attack is a sudden emotional response of feeling terror or fear when, in reality, there is no imminent danger to the person experiencing it,” says Kelly McKenna, licensed clinical social worker and anxiety therapist.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, every year up to 11 percent of Americans experience a panic attack—so it’s safe to say I’m not alone in this. The therapists I’ve talked to say many of their clients experience them—and it’s learning how to stop a panic attack, or well, slow one down that is the ultimate game changer.
Keep reading to find out more about how to stop a panic attack, according to therapists, and what you’ll want to do next time you find yourself or a loved one in this uncomfortable situation.
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What does a panic attack feel like?
Unless you’ve had a panic attack, it’s pretty hard to describe exactly what it feels like, but many therapists receive similar answers when their clients come to them saying that they think they’ve experienced a one.
“Some common symptoms include the heart beating very fast, physical shaking, and feeling out of reality or constricted,” says McKenna.
Kristen Gingrich, licensed clinical social worker and a certified drug and alcohol counselor, adds that some other common symptoms of a panic attack include chest pain, gastrointestinal issues, dizziness, racing thoughts, crying, or increased anger.
How to stop a panic attack
If you’re reading this, then you’re probably interested in learning how to stop a panic attack. Well, you’ve come to the right place. For starters, panic attacks usually stop on their own after a few minutes, but there are some therapist-approved strategies you can use to expedite the process and relieve symptoms more quickly.
1. Know that it will pass
When you’re in the middle of a panic attack, it can feel like the feelings are going to last forever. While that may seem like the case, luckily, that’s not true.
“If possible, name to yourself that you are having a panic attack. Tell yourself that these symptoms are a part of an attack that will pass,” says Madeline Lucas, clinical content manager and therapist at Real. “There is cortisol [the stress hormone] and adrenaline pumping through your system at the moment and it will settle back to normal soon.”
2. Ground yourself
While in the middle of a panic attack, it can be difficult to actually realize what’s going on around you, so you’ll want to actively pay attention to your environment and stay grounded.
“Look around your space and name as many things as you can that you see. Feel your butt where you’re sitting on the floor. Press your toes into the ground,” says Lucas. “One of my favorite techniques is butterfly tapping, where you cross your arms across your chest and engage in light, rhythmic tapping left and right. All of these steps will start to activate your parasympathetic nervous system to communicate, I am safe. I am okay.”
3. Breathe deeply
You’ve probably heard the advice to “take deep breaths” when you’re nervous or anxious, but that’s particularly important when stopping a panic attack.
“Paced breathing skills are all about being mindful of our breathing and utilizing timed breathing techniques that will deactivate the parasympathetic nervous system,” says Gingrich. The most common breathing technique is 5-7-8—5 seconds in, hold for 7 seconds, and out for 8 seconds, while making sure that your out breath is always the longest.
Additionally, McKenna notes that the act of counting as you breathe helps to shift your focus away from the panic and toward something else, which can help slow it down.
4. Do a TIPP skill
This skill requires a bit more work than scanning your environment and breathing, but it’s been proven effective in stopping panic attacks.
The temperature portion of the TIPP skill (temperature, intense exercise, paced breathing, and paired muscle relaxation) can be extremely helpful when figuring out how to stop a panic attack, especially with cold temperatures.
“The three most common ways people use this skill is by holding an ice cube in their hands, taking an ice cold shower, and submerging their face up to the temples into an ice water bath for 15 to 20 seconds,” says Gingrich. “This helps to deactivate your parasympathetic nervous system—like a fire alarm for your body—by activating your mammalian dive reflex, which automatically causes your body to slow down, shocking it back into the present moment.”
5. Try muscle relaxation
When you’re in a heightened state during a panic attack, you’ll want to work on relaxing the muscles that are overexerting themselves. McKenna suggests starting at the toes and tensing them up for five seconds and then releasing. Using this same mechanism, you’ll want to slowly work your way up the body, tensing and releasing the muscle groups until you feel more relaxed.
6. See a therapist or mental health professional
You’ll want to consider seeing a therapist or medical doctor to talk about what may be causing the panic attacks and coming up with a specific treatment plan. While that may include a variation of the skills mentioned above, you might find medicine helpful, something a professional can assist with as well as educate you about other treatment options.
How to help others cope with a panic attack
For some people, panic attacks are a daily occurrence, and for others, they are more infrequent. Regardless of the frequency, people who experience panic attacks can benefit from having support and knowing you are there.
“Sitting with the person and helping them access skills they might be familiar with, like paced breathing and sensory grounding techniques, and doing them together with them can be helpful when helping a friend or loved one cope with a panic attack,” says Gingrich.
Additionally, you can be the voice of the reason in the situation and remind them that they are safe and these feelings will pass. Sometimes hearing it from someone else can help provide a sense of reassurance.
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