Panic attacks. If you’ve ever had one, you’ll never forget it. They can be challenging to deal with. And the scary thing about them is they often come on out of nowhere. Knowing the techniques for calming a panic attack is your best line of defense when they start to rear their ugly head.
What’s the difference between feeling nervous versus a panic attack?
Think back to your first date, or when you had to merge onto the highway for the first time in driver’s training or your first job interview. If your memory is like mine, you’ll remember your heart was beating fast, your stomach was doing flip-flops, and your palms were sweaty. That was just a normal response to feeling nervous. But once those events were over, we felt relief and went back to feeling normal.
A panic attack is characterized by a sudden, gripping feeling of fear that triggers severe physical reactions. The scary physical symptoms lead one to believe they are having a medical emergency even though there is no real danger or apparent cause. A panic attack can occur during a calm state or in an anxious state, and it can be terrifying.
What a panic attack feels like
Stacy won’t ever forget her first panic attack. She had been looking forward to some downtime at the end of a busy week when she could finally crack open a recently bought novel. So, with the whole house to herself, she settled down in her comfy chair and prepared to lose herself for a couple of hours as she dug into the book.
After a couple of minutes, like a brief whisper, she noticed a flutter in her chest but kept reading. Suddenly, a tingling feeling started in her head. That got her attention! It seemed all at once she was aware of other odd sensations washing over her. She felt slightly nauseous, her heart was racing, she thought she felt chest pains, her hands trembled, and she felt light-headed.
As fear rose in her throat, she wondered if she was having a stroke or a heart attack. It seemed that all of the sensations were building in intensity. She vacillated between being in denial that anything was wrong and whether she should call 911. After about ten minutes, she was shaken but was kind of “feeling normal” again.
Many people can have one or two panic attacks in their lifetime during stressful times, and the problem will go away. But sometimes an individual keeps experiencing them repeatedly and lives in fear about when or where their next attack might happen.
SYMPTOMS OF A PANIC ATTACK
When a panic attack starts, the physical symptoms are all too real. They typically include some of these signs or symptoms:
- Sense of impending doom or danger
- Fear of loss of control or death
- Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
- Chest pain
- Trembling or shaking
- Trouble swallowing
- Shortness of breath or tightness in the throat
- Chills or hot flashes
- Nausea or abdominal distress
- Dizziness, lightheadedness, or faintness
- Numbness or tingling sensations
- A feeling of unreality or detachment
Although individuals dealing with anxiety may often experience some of these physical symptoms, those having a panic attack will notice a difference in the symptoms’ intensity and duration. Panic attacks generally reach their peak intensity level in 10 minutes or so and then will begin to subside. It is because of the intensity of the symptoms and their tendency to imitate life-threatening issues that are frightening to those experiencing the panic attack.
4 POWERFUL TIPS FOR CALMING A PANIC ATTACK QUICKLY
Although there are numerous ways of calming a panic attack, here are some strategies that have worked for others that may help you:
1. Just breathe deeply
Deep breathing exercises can help you to feel calmer despite the panic you are feeling. Taking slow, deliberate breaths will calm you down and divert your attention from being fixated on your unpleasant symptoms. Keeping your shoulders down, practice breathing in through your nose for a count of five, hold it for five, then slowly through pursed lips, exhale out through your mouth for a count of five.
2. Grounding techniques
Using grounding techniques helps to distract you from the frightening symptoms you feel and allow you to refocus on what is happening in the present moment. One I find especially helpful is the 5-4-3-2-1 method.
Working backward from 5, use your senses to list things around you presently or perhaps a time or place that made you feel happy. For example, list five things you can see, four things you hear, three things you can touch, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. Try to notice the little things you might otherwise overlook, such as specks in the carpet or the sound of your breathing.
3. Use muscle relaxation techniques
Much like deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation techniques can help stop your panic attack in its tracks by controlling your body’s response as much as possible.
While using a deep breathing technique, tense a group of muscles as you breathe in, hold for 5-10 seconds and relax them as you breathe out. Starting with your head, continue to go through each muscle group as you work your way down to your feet. When you are finished, take a few breaths and repeat, only this time start with your feet and work your way up to the crown of your head.
If you would like to learn more about how to practice progressive muscle relaxation, visit the University of Michigan for step by step instructions that will take you through the procedure.
Progressive muscle relaxation is a skill that takes practice to master. By practicing these techniques when all is calm, you will be better prepared to use them when panic strikes.
4. Recognize you are having a panic attack
By acknowledging you are experiencing a panic attack instead of a major medical incident, you can remind yourself that what you are experiencing is only temporary. Try to relax and tell yourself the following:
- You are safe
- You are okay
- It will pass
Soon the fear that you may be dying or that impending doom is about to fall will gradually fade away, and you can breathe normally and come back to reality.
Panic attacks, although frightening and mentally and physically exhausting, are not life-threatening, which in itself is a relief. The next time the symptoms of a panic attack start to escalate, I encourage you to try these four tips to stop them or at least lessen their effect. Another great way to learn more strategies to manage panic and anxiety symptoms is to work with an anxiety coach through breakthrough coaching.
Hi, I’m Kris Henderson, LPC. I want you to know that I am here to help. The easiest way to start taking control of your anxiety is to take the FREE 5-Day Anxiety Detox Challenge. If you would like more personalized support, I invite you to contact me or make an appointment online. Together, we can discover what methods work best for you to manage your panic attacks.