Have you experienced a panic attack before? Ever wondered how to stop a panic attack while it’s happening? In this post I’m going to go over some panic attack treatments to help you deal with panic attacks, even if you’re experiencing one right now.
If you are experiencing a panic attack right now, scroll down towards the bottom of this post under the header “How to Stop a Panic Attack While its Happening” to jump straight to the tools you need.
Panic Attack Definition
What is a panic attack? Often people mislabel general stress or anxiety as a panic attack, and mislabel panic attacks as a medical issue (e.g., heart attack). Panic attacks, by definition, involve an intense physiological reaction to an anxious situation.
According to the DSM-5, panic attacks must include at least 4 or more of the following symptoms:
- Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
- Trembling or shaking
- Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
- A feeling of choking
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Nausea or abdominal distress
- Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint
- Feelings of unreality (derealization) or being detached from oneself (depersonalization)
- Fear of losing control or going crazy
- Fear of dying
- Numbness or tingling sensations (paresthesias)
- Chills or hot flushes
Although panic attacks are not considered a disorder in and of themselves, for those who avoid scenarios that might trigger a panic attack to a debilitating degree may potentially meet criteria for Panic Disorder.
If you’re concerned that you may be experiencing panic attacks or meet criteria for a diagnosis of panic disorder, I encourage you to seek the help of a medical professional who can help clarify what you’re experiencing through a proper evaluation.
Panic Attack Treatment
Before carrying on, I need to get a key point across. If you take away just one thing from this post, let it be this: Symptoms of anxiety are uncomfortable, but they are not dangerous.
Symptoms of anxiety are uncomfortable, but they are not dangerous.
All treatments for anxiety, including panic attacks, center around this motto.
With that said, panic attack treatment centers around staying put in your anxious state. In the therapy world, sometimes we refer to this as “sitting with” the anxiety or “riding the wave” of anxiety. Choosing to stay in the anxiety-provoking scenario allows you to calm down before leaving the anxiety-provoking situation.
This is the underlying basis for all anxiety treatments.
How to Stop a Panic Attack While it’s Happening
So how do you deal with a panic attack happening right now? With all the above in mind, here are three tips to help you overcome a panic attack:
- Accept that You’re Having a Panic Attack. Once it starts, it doesn’t help to resist. In fact, if you give in to the urge to get rid of the panic, it will likely only get worse. A panic attack works much like getting on to a roller coaster ride. Once the ride has started, there’s no way to get off the ride until the ride is over. Your best bet for getting through is to stay put and hang on.
- Don’t Run Away. Our natural inclination when we panic is to do whatever we can to get away from the triggering situation. However, running away is exactly what reinforces our panic and makes it more likely to occur again in the future and with greater intensity. Staying put in the situation makes you more uncomfortable in the moment, but will help reduce and sometimes eliminate future panic attacks. Remember, your discomfort is not dangerous. Stay on the roller coaster until the end of the ride rather than ejecting before it’s over.
- Breathe Through it. You’re not going anywhere, so take a moment to breathe through the panic. Deep breathing won’t eliminate your panic, but it will help you cope with the discomfort. Place a hand on your belly and try to inflate your belly like a balloon. Slowly exhale, ensuring you empty all the air from your lungs before inhaling again.
Keep reminding yourself of these three tips until the panic passes. Panic attacks are so intense that physiologically they can’t last that long. Typically they can’t last longer than 10 minutes. You can hang in there for 10 minutes! Once the panic attack has passed, you can then exit the triggering scenario and utilize other coping skills like talking to a loved one or using distraction techniques.
This may not be your last experience with a panic attack, but with these tools you will reduce the power they have over your life, and they may eventually completely eliminate over time.
You may also find it helpful to watch my video outlining these same tools to help you stop a panic attack while it’s happening:
Panic Attack Resources
If you’re experiencing frequent panic attacks or if you find that they are significantly impacting your life, you might find it helpful to reach out to a local counselor or other mental health professional.
However, I have found one tool to be particularly helpful if you would like to give it a go on your own first:
I’ve gone through this workbook together with many clients, but you may find it useful to give it a go on your own.
As always, I’d like to be clear that this blog post isn’t intended as professional counseling or clinical advice. If you’re in need of support, please consider speaking to a professional to be evaluated.
Dr. Marie Fang is a licensed psychologist offering therapy and counseling services to individuals in the Silicon Valley. Her office is located in central San Jose. One of her primary specialties is working with those looking for help with anxiety. Learn more about Dr. Marie Fang’s Services for Anxiety Counseling.