If you’ve experienced a panic attack before, you may be worried you’ll have more in the future. But learning how to stop a panic attack can help build resilience. It can also help you trust in your ability to care for yourself as you let the wave of panic move through you. Here are 11 ways to do it.
1. Make a panic plan
It can be calming and reassuring to have a plan for what you’ll do if you experience a panic attack. Avoidance is common with panic and panic disorder. It’s common to worry about what will happen if you go to work or a party and experience panic.
This fear may be worse for folks with social anxiety disorder. Preparing your toolkit beforehand gives you options for how to deal with panic attacks.
Panic can be counterintuitive— trying to stop it may actually make it worse. It’s normal to try to figure out how to stop a panic attack. But a more effective approach is accepting the experience for what it is and using tools to minimize the distress. All the suggestions below are good options to add to your panic plan.
2. Know the symptoms
Symptoms that feel “wrong” are natural. When experiencing panic, you may be afraid that something is wrong. That’s because the symptoms are your body’s way of sounding an alarm.
Researchers believe that panic is a misfiring of the fight or flight response. In simple terms, it’s a “false alarm.”
Symptoms such as pounding heart, sweating, shaking, shortness of breath, feeling smothered or choking, chest pain, nausea, chills, tingling, feeling like you aren’t in reality, fear of losing control, and fear of dying are common symptoms of panic.
3. You’re safe right now
One risk factor for panic disorder is anxiety sensitivity or the belief that symptoms of anxiety are harmful or dangerous.
In the midst of a panic attack, you may feel like you’re in physical danger even though panic attacks don’t threaten your physical wellbeing. That being said, your body may not know the fight or flight response is a false alarm.
Here’s another option to stop a panic attack: reassure yourself that you’re safe, even if you don’t feel safe. You can repeat the words I am safe right now to remind yourself.
4. Visualize calm
Imagine anxiety like a thermometer. At level 1 is everyday anxiety or the worry every human experiences. At level 10 is panic, an explosion of worry and sensations.
If you experience anxiety sensitivity, your mind may be prone to catastrophizing earlier levels of anxiety or panic, making a safe experience feel dangerous, and making a panic attack more likely.
Visualizations can help stop a panic attack. Imagine the thermometer I just described and picture where your current anxiety would be. As you take some slow breaths, imagine the red line on the thermometer going down. Breathe in safety, and imagine the temperature decreasing with your exhale.
5. Panic passes quickly
Though the minutes may feel like an eternity because panic is so intense, one difference between panic and anxiety is the pace. Panic peaks within minutes, and most panic attacks last 5-20 minutes.
Remind yourself that panic attacks pass, and though they are much more intense than generalized anxiety, they peak and pass away much more quickly.
6. Try a breathing technique
A common symptom of a panic attack is feeling a sense of shortness of breath or feeling suffocated. It’s as if your body can’t get enough oxygen. This is part of our fight or flight response.
Intentionally altering your breathing back to a steady pace helps regulate your body and mind. It also gives your mind something to focus on, besides the fears that so naturally accompany panic.
Breathe in through your nose for a count of 4 and out through your nose for a count of 4. If a count of 4 is difficult, try 2-3 seconds.
7. Take a break
If you start to experience panic while driving, cooking, or caring for others, stop what you’re doing and attend to the panic as your first priority.
Remember, it will just be for a few minutes.
Pull over, turn off the stove, ask someone to watch the kids, or put them somewhere safe in the room to entertain themselves. If you’re working, you might duck into a bathroom stall.
As soon as you begin to notice panic arise, find a space to focus on your breath, use your tools, and remain safe while the wave of panic comes on, peaks, and fades away.
8. Prepare a mantra
It can help to have a mantra prepared ahead of time. Find something that feels true to you but is challenging to remember in a moment of panic.
Here are some examples
- I’m safe right now.
- This too shall pass.
- My body is having an experience.
- I have survived this before.
- Nothing bad is going to happen.
- Say the word “in” as you breathe in a count of 4 and “out” as you breathe out for a count of 4
9. Ground yourself in the moment
Often mindfulness for relaxation invites us to focus on the body. During the experience of panic, it may feel uncomfortable to tune into your body sensations. Instead, it can be helpful to ground in other aspects of the present moment.
- Feel your feet on the ground. Focus on the firmness of the ground beneath you. Feel the seat of your chair and notice how it supports you.
- Look around the room and notice 3 things. Notice the details—for example, a big, green plant, flat, white walls, or a colorful rug.
10. The 5-4-3-2-1 technique
The 5-4-3-2-1 technique is another exercise to help you focus on the details of physical reality to ground yourself in the present moment.
Here’s how it goes:
- See: Notice 5 things around you can see. For example, see the look of the wall, the texture of the ground, or a colorful item in your space.
- Touch: Find 4 things you can touch. Try feeling the chair you’re sitting on, the feel of clothing against your body, or the temperature of your skin.
- Hear: Notice 3 things you can hear. Maybe it’s the sound of wind outside, the hum of an appliance, or the traffic from the street.
- Smell: What are 2 things you can smell? Maybe it’s the lotion on your hands, soap in the bathroom, or the smell of food or drinks.
- Taste: What’s 1 thing you can taste? You can pop a mint or piece of gum in your mouth or notice any lingering taste inside your mouth.
11. Ask for help
Although you can and will safely move through a panic attack on your own, you don’t have to do it by yourself. If you’re going somewhere where you fear having a panic attack you may want to ask a friend or trusted colleague to be a panic resource.
In my experience, people want to help but may not know how to help someone having a panic attack.
Here are some tips you can give them. Please adjust based on what you know is helpful for you.
- Escort me to a safe place.
- Remind me that I am safe and okay.
- Help me remember that nothing bad is going to happen.
- Remind me of the facts: “You are experiencing a panic attack. It will peak within minutes, and then it will be over.”
- Breathe with me. You might say: “Let’s breathe together. In and out. In, 2, 3, 4. Out, 2, 3, 4.
- Panic attacks are a common mental health issue, impacting 11.2% of adults in the US each year.
- Panic attacks arise and pass quickly, often peaking within a few minutes, and lasting 5-20 minutes total.
- Learning how to stop a panic attack can help you tolerate the distress of panic as it arises and passes away.
- Try tools like affirmations, breathing techniques, and grounding exercises to manage the discomfort of panic.
- The American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596
- Everly & Lating (2013). Voluntary Control of Respiration Patterns. In: A Clinical Guide to the Treatment of the Human Stress Response. Springer, New York, NY. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4614-5538-7_11
- Lilienfeld & Arkowitz (2008). Why Do We Panic? A better understanding of the path from stress to anxiety to full-blown panic disorder offers soothing news for sufferers. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-do-we-panic/
- NHS staff (2020). Panic Disorder. https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/conditions/panic-disorder
- Taylor (2006). Panic Disorder. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25456719
- No Panic. (2020). How correct breathing reduces Anxiety. https://nopanic.org.uk/important-breathe-properly-help-anxiety/