How to Deal If Panic Attacks Are Ruining Your LifeNope, this is not death. Really! It’s not!
There’s no point in sugar-coating it: Panic attacks are just plain awful. If you’ve ever had one, you know how terrifying it is when your body goes haywire—especially when you’re in traffic, on a date, in your boss’ office, or literally just chilling at home. Even the idea of another panic attack lurking in the back of your mind can be freaky. Unfortunately, if you’re wondering how to stop a panic attack in its tracks, the truth is that it’s really freakin’ hard (and often impossible) to simply will yourself out of one, explains psychiatrist Juan Romero-Gaddi, MD, founder of Equal Mental Health. That said, there are some expert-backed ways to manage panic attack symptoms once they strike, so that you can get back to calm as quickly as possible.
First of all, what are panic attacks?
Let’s back up a sec for a little panic attack 101: Though panic attack symptoms can vary from person to person, they typically involve a range of uncomfortable symptoms like your heart pounding out of your chest, nausea, sweating, chest pain, shakiness, numbness, shortness of breath, and chills, says Dr. Romero-Gaddi. Usually, the physical misery is accompanied by intense feelings of doom and fear of death. Again, awful.
So, uh, WTF is going on when your hands start tingling and you can’t breathe Ted Lasso-style while you’re in the middle of the supermarket just trying to decide which oat milk to buy? Oftentimes, panic attacks are triggered by some sort of anxious thought that tricks your body into freaking out the way it would if you were face-to-face with your middle-school bully or that creepy girl from The Ring. That sends your sympathetic nervous system into “fight, flight, or freeze” mode, says clinical psychologist Ryan Howes, PhD. The result is a burst of adrenaline that makes your heart and lungs prepare for battle (or to just get TF out of there).
Panic attacks can last anywhere from a few minutes to a half hour, though they feel like for-ev-er when you’re in the middle of one, the experts say. And then there’s the post-panic attack hangover. Yeah, that’s a thing. As if the whole feeling-like-you’re-going-to-die issue wasn’t enough, a lot of people feel jittery or completely exhausted for hours after the intensity subsides, says Dr. Howes.
Another bummer: Panic attacks can happen to…anyone. That said, they happen most often to people who have an anxiety disorder or panic disorder, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR).
If you do have panic disorder, you might experience panic attacks with no clear trigger (like as soon as you wake up) and spend a significant amount of time stressing about what could trigger your next one or when it will happen, per the DSM-5-TR. If you don’t have panic disorder, it’s more likely that you’ll have a panic attack in a particularly stressful or anxiety-inducing scenario, like bumper-to-bumper traffic.
It’s important to remember (even though it might feel impossible in the moment) that panic attacks aren’t inherently dangerous, says Dr. Romero-Gaddi. (Read: No, you aren’t actually going to die.) Obviously, though, if you have panic attacks, the desperation to make them stop is real.
Again, it’s low-key impossible to stop a panic attack like you’d stifle a sneeze or hold in your angry tears at work. But there are a few things you can do to turn the volume down on your symptoms and help your body calm the heck down. Here’s how to do that.
1. Get your environment right.
A perhaps-obvious-but-important first move when shit starts going down: Get yourself out of any stressful or potentially harmful situation—like driving, says Dr. Howes. Doing 80 on the highway while hyperventilating is not it, honey. Pull over, find a buddy, or get thee to a comfortable place, like, right now.
If you can also remove yourself from anything overstimulating or triggering, do it, says Dr. Romero-Gaddi. That means leaving anywhere that’s loud or crowded (or both) to find some quiet. You can also try using earplugs, noise-canceling headphones, or an eye mask, if you have them (and if you’re in a safe situation to use these).
2. Have a list of comforts at the ready.
If panic attacks are a recurring thing for you, doing a little prep work can help you cope better (or at least faster) the next time one of these barges into your day. Bust out your journal or phone, and jot down a few objects or activities that comfort you. A bath, hot chocolate, a good friend who likes talking on the phone, a blanket on your couch, a walk in the park or around your block, or just a calming playlist are all good options, says Dr. Howes. Keeping this list handy can help you take action when it’s hard to think straight.
3. Put that adrenaline to work.
OK, we’re not saying you should go out and run a 5k, but moving around might make you feel more calm. “The sudden jolt of adrenaline is a burst of energy to the body, and when you sit still that energy has no real outlet,” says Dr. Howes. “Some people feel it helps to go for a quick walk, run up the stairs, or do jumping jacks to expel some of that extra energy.”
Not quite up for that? Go for a more subtle physical outlet like a fidget spinner, some other sensory toy, or even coloring, suggests Dr. Romero-Gaddi.
4. Do a quick grounding exercise.
When you feel like someone’s standing on your chest and your mind is ping-ponging all over the place, everything going on around you practically dissolves. But tuning into your surroundings can actually help interrupt the swirl of a panic attack. “Taking a moment to pay attention to your five senses has a way of pulling you back into the safety of the present,” explains Dr. Howes. Take a look around and name five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can smell, two things you can physically touch, and one thing you can taste. If you can say all those things out loud, that’s a bonus!
5. Embrace the cold.
There are a few ways to do this one, but both Dr. Romero-Gaddi and Dr. Howes have found that literally chilling yourself out is a good way to, ya know, chill when you’re in the throes of a panic attack. “Some people say they feel calmer when they take a cold, wet washcloth and place it on the back of their neck,” Dr. Howes says. “There are various theories as to why this works, from nerve stimulation to just experiencing a different physical sensation, but regardless, it can help.” Holding ice cubes or an ice pack can also do the trick.
If you’re up for it, Dr. Romero-Gaddi also recommends the ice diver’s technique, which involves plunging your face into a bowl filled with ice cubes and water. After doing a handful of face plunges for a few seconds at a time each, something called the “diving reflex” works to reduce the response of your nervous system (aka the thing going bananas during a panic attack), effectively helping you feel less flighty, he says.
6. Take your meds.
Obviously, this one takes some pre-planning, but if you have recurring panic attacks, a prescription for a fast-acting medication, like a benzodiazepine, that you can grab and take as needed can really save the day, says Dr. Romero-Gaddi. Those can help relieve panic attack symptoms pretty quickly, he adds.
7. Talk to a pro.
Here’s the thing, guys: While everything on this list can certainly help, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to stopping panic attacks (or preventing them from popping up in the first place), says Dr. Howes. So, if they keep crashing your party, consider it a less-than polite invitation to find a licensed mental health pro.
Not only can teaming up with a therapist or psychiatrist enable you to load up your toolkit for dealing with panic attacks when they arise, but it can also help you tone down your overall stress and anxiety. Ultimately, that can make for fewer panic attacks down the line, suggests Dr. Romero-Gaddi. The long-game is where the real magic happens.
Wondermind does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Any information published on this website or by this brand is not intended as a replacement for medical advice. Always consult a qualified health or mental health professional with any questions or concerns about your mental health.