5 Steps to Stop a Panic Attack

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This post is going to teach you the psychology behind calming anxiety attacks and give you a ton of tools to try so that you can create your custom plan to stop anxiety attacks.

An anxiety attack, in my definition, is when you’re overwhelmed with stress, fear, or anxiety. You may feel panicky, or your anxiety is so strong and the physical symptoms are so intense that you just can’t function very well. 

This post is going to teach you the psychology behind calming anxiety attacks and give you a ton of tools to try so that you can create your custom plan to stop anxiety attacks. 

If you’re right in the middle of an anxiety attack or you just want to be walked through one simple version of the process, check out my other video: A Guided Walkthrough to Calm Anxiety Attacks

This post is more educational in nature, so you’ll learn a bunch of options that you can learn and then apply later.

I remember one time almost 15 years ago when I was overcome with anxiety. I was about to go into the field for an eight-day trek with some unhappy teenagers in wilderness therapy. I hadn’t slept or eaten well, and on top of that, I had finals for my last semester of online university courses due that day. 

Right before I needed to go into the field, I started feeling super shaky and nauseous, and I felt kind of hot, cold, and sweaty. And then I thought that I might throw up. So I just assumed that I had caught some kind of virus and I was physically sick. 

We found someone else to take my shift. And as soon as the trucks left for the field without me, all of my symptoms went away. So I realized that this was anxiety. And when I realized that, I took a look at my stress levels, and it became pretty clear why my body was freaking out a little bit. I’d taken on too many things, and I wasn’t taking care of myself. 

I’ve probably had a handful of anxiety attacks in my life, and this was one of them. 

Panic attacks and anxiety attacks have a lot of overlapping symptoms, and people often use these terms interchangeably, but there are essentially two different pathways to treating them. There’s rolling with it or calming your body down. 

I teach option one in my video series on how to stop a panic attack. In today’s post I’m going to teach you a ton of options for pathway number two, the calm-down approach to anxiety attacks. My goal is to teach you a bunch of tools, and then you can try them and find one that works for you in the long run. 

If you have chronic panic attacks and trying to control your breathing or calm down makes you feel worse, then definitely watch my other videos on how to stop panic attacks. 

You ready to jump in? This post has three sections: understanding what feeds anxiety attacks, calming your bodily anxiety during an anxiety attack, and preventing anxiety attacks by creating a sustainable plan to manage anxiety.

Understand What Feeds Anxiety Attacks

So let’s do the first section, understanding what feeds anxiety. So the short-term emotion of anxiety is not the problem here. Don’t be afraid of anxiety, and don’t struggle to make anxiety go away immediately. If you try to force yourself to not feel anxious, you’ll probably make yourself feel worse. 

Now, people often confuse anxiety as the problem because it’s uncomfortable and it may make it hard to think clearly. You might believe that it’s embarrassing to experience anxiety or that your symptoms mean that you’re having a heart attack or some other physical illness. 

Now, emotions are uncomfortable sometimes, but if you learn to roll with them, they can’t injure you. 

Fearing anxiety is actually the problem. When we fear anxiety, we send a message to our brain that anxiety is dangerous, and this heightens the problem. Worrying about anxiety or avoiding it can make it worse. 

Instead of saying, “This is horrible; I’m having an anxiety attack” and creating more and more anxiety about anxiety, say something like, “Wow, this is such a curious experience. This is uncomfortable, but I can feel my feelings and be okay. I can handle having emotions.” Remind yourself that emotions like anxiety come and go in waves, and this isn’t going to last forever. 

Start by observing your feelings. Notice them. Make space for them. This is the foundation. It doesn’t mean we have to stay here. It doesn’t mean we have to stay anxious forever. We’re just starting where we are. 

Next, slow down instead of speeding up. 

You may be tempted to run amok, to get busier, to distract yourself, to do more, or to run away to desperately escape your situation, to avoid everything that makes you anxious. 

Both speeding up and running away reinforce in your brain that anxiety or the situation is physically dangerous, which makes your brain pump out more adrenaline and stress hormones, which makes you feel more anxious, and this heightens the anxiety cycle. 

So instead, find a place to slow down, whether that’s a physical space, like your bedroom or a quiet park, or a mental space, like meditation or journaling. 

Now, slowing down is quite different from avoiding. Slowing down is trying to decrease the stimulation that’s overwhelming, whether it’s noise or the pressure in a meeting or your internal self-talk. Slowing down is about addressing these issues one by one instead of running away from them. 

Now, you don’t need to solve everything right now. You don’t need to confront someone right now. You don’t need to run away right now. You don’t need to fix anything when you’re super emotional. Slow it down. 

Calm Your Bodily Anxiety

When you slow it down, that takes us to the next set of skills, which is calming your bodily anxiety during an anxiety attack. 

Anxiety isn’t just in your head; it’s in your body. And when you’re super upset, your body is the key to resolving anxiety. So let’s do something with your senses. 

There are a lot of options here, but the goal is to get back into your body in a slow way to reconnect with your body. So I’m going to give you a bunch of options. Here are a couple you can try to find out which ones work for you. 

Now, in this post I’m just going to very briefly mention these skills, but you can learn them in depth with my free course Grounding Skills for Stress and Anxiety, where I teach about 20 ways to turn on the body’s calming parasympathetic response and reduce stress and soothe anxiety. So if you want to learn more about that, check out the link in the description. 

So back to grounding with our senses. 

You could try washing your face or hands in cold water. This triggers the dive reflex, where your body slows its heart rate and breathing as if to conserve energy while underwater. You could also try to hold an ice cube or use a cold washcloth on your forehead or neck. You could also try washing your hands or face in really hot water. 

So as I give you a bunch of these tools to calm your body, you don’t have to do them all. It’s just about trying them and finding what works for you. 

Next thing you could try is patting your legs bilaterally. So that means one and then the other. This can help you get back into your senses. Literally, your sensations in your body can send a message to your brain that you are safe. Your body has a built-in anti-anxiety response when you show it that you’re actually safe, and it’ll kick in. This is the parasympathetic response. 

The next skill is tapping. This is also known as the emotional freedom technique. So you gently tap seven times in each of these areas: forehead, upper lip, chin, throat, right under your arm, and on your palm.

Next thing you could try is going for a walk. It’s helpful if you can do this outside, but if not, any kind of movement may help you clear your mind. And if you can get outside, that sensory experience of cold or hot air, of fresh air, of different smells, that can help your body reset too. 

You can try a self-hug, just kind of squeezing yourself gently. And try deep breathing, which is slow breaths in through the nose and out through the nose. 

You can make sure that when you’re breathing, you’re breathing with your belly. So you can put your hand on your stomach and make sure it moves up and down as you breathe in and out. 

You can also try slow breathing — breathing in for five seconds and out for five seconds. 

You can try yawning.

You can try any taste or smell, like an essential oil or a breath mint or a warhead, which is a really sour candy. Another thing about sour candies is that they release the saliva in your mouth, and when that saliva releases, that’s also a parasympathetic response. 

Another thing you could try is leaning into what you’re feeling and exaggerating the sensations you’re having. So for example, if you’re feeling jittery legs, jiggle your legs extra hard for a minute. Let yourself lean into that feeling. 

You could try stretching. Just stretch out all of your muscles. That can help you come back to your senses. And so can grounding with the five senses. This is a pretty well-known exercise where you name five things you can see, four things you can feel, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. 

You can also try progressive muscle relaxation. This is a systematic way to tense and relax muscle groups to gain this conscious ability to relax. 

And remind yourself that you are safe, that you can handle having feelings. Remind yourself that you’re not in any physical danger at this moment. 

Now, if you are in physical danger, you should leave or take some action to escape. But if not, use some positive self-talk. Say, “This feeling will pass.” Or you could say, “This emotion is uncomfortable, but it’s not dangerous. I can get through this.” Or you can say, “This is anxiety. It’s not a heart attack.” 

It also helps to challenge negative thinking, black-and-white thinking or catastrophizing. You’re not allowed to say, “Everything is awful.” You’re not allowed to say that everything is terrible or hopeless or helpless or horrible. 

You are allowed to acknowledge the things that are difficult. You can describe your emotions or your situation. But don’t label it as bad or terrible or awful. 

Now, again, if calming yourself down doesn’t work, or if it makes you feel worse, then you need to try the roll-with-it method, where you completely drop the struggle against emotions. You lean in and you say, “Bring it on, anxiety. Bring it on, panic. You can’t hurt me,” and you let the anxiety flow and move on. 

And you can learn more about this technique in my other videos.

Create a Plan to Manage Anxiety

Now, the real problem here is not that you have emotions or that you had an anxiety attack. The real problem is that you don’t have a system to resolve anxiety, so it’s building up in you and boiling over. The real problem is that you haven’t developed a sustainable way to manage stress in your life. 

Feeling anxiety occasionally is normal, natural, and healthy, but having anxiety build up over and over is a sign that you’re stuffing it instead of processing it. If that’s the case, then you’ve got to develop a more well-rounded approach to processing anxiety. Check out my emotion processing course and my videos on processing anxiety. 

But the main idea is that the way to prevent anxiety attacks from happening is more about life management than just emotion management. So you’ve got to face anxiety and resolve problems. 

So this looks like setting boundaries, balancing your budget, or working through past trauma so that the triggers aren’t so intense. It’s all about creating a sustainable life. So this means having a reasonable schedule that includes time for rest and renewal, and it includes setting realistic expectations for yourself. 

It also involves taking care of your body. Exercise, don’t smoke or drink, decrease caffeine, and eat regularly to manage blood sugar. 

It involves things like self-care, practicing breathing or meditation each day, and training yourself to manage stress. 

It includes getting enough sleep and taking your meds. 

It includes clearly identifying your locus of control. So instead of avoiding stressful situations or taking responsibility for everyone and everything, you choose to address a problem if it’s in your control or let go of responsibility if it’s not yours. 

It can also be really helpful to keep a journal, or at least write about your emotions and write about your anxiety attacks. That’s because sometimes it’s really hard to see patterns that are leading up to being overwhelmed by anxiety, but when you write it down it can become clear why you’re feeling the way that you are and what to do about it. 

So there are over 20 things you could try to start to work through anxiety attacks and to stop them from happening. You don’t have to do them all. Heck, you shouldn’t try to do them all. Just pick one or two that seem like it might be helpful, and give it a try. 

Looking back on my anxiety attack 15 years ago, I can tell you that I’ve learned a lot. Now when I start to feel stress or anxiety build, I have learned that I need to slow things down. I need to take care of my body and take a hard look at my life and see what things I need to cut out that aren’t necessary. 

I try to put things in order, and I try to take the right amount of responsibility — so not taking responsibility for things I’m not responsible for. And that can help stop the anxiety cycle from growing. 

I hope you find this post helpful. Thank you for reading, and take care.

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