How do you stop a panic attack when it starts?
The answer is rarely straightforward, although you can usually do something fairly effective about it.
The mind-body connection
The first thing to realise is that when you panic, it’s not all in the head. If you ask yourself, “How do I know that I’m panicking?”, you might be tempted to say, “Well, I just know.”
But, how do you know that you know? Is it an intellectual thought? Did you sit there and suddenly think, “Panicking is an emotional state that affects the brain, releasing hormnones blah blah blah” and suddenly you’re panicking? No, of course not. Panic is a highly emotional state that usually doesn’t seem to have a logical cause.
So, take it further: “How do you feel panic?” What’s happening in your body that lets you know that a panic attack is under way?
Your could have a range of answers, which might include some or all of the following.
- Fast heart rate
- Sweaty hands
- Shaking hands or body
- Shallow, fast breathing
- Knotted stomach
The point is that panic is held in the body. If you had no body in which to feel panic, you wouldn’t feel panic.
Which leads us to the next point…
What’s causing the panic?
Here, I’m not referring to the “root cause”, say a childhood incident, but what specifically is causing the physical symptoms?
For example, my heart sometimes goes fast because of a medical condition. When this happens, I feel like I’m panicking. I realise, though, that I have nothing to panic about, and that there is no emotional cause to the panic; I simply feel the panic because my heart’s going too fast!
In this case, my body is creating the panic, and if I’m not careful, I’ll accidentally think that something near me is causing me (my mind) to panic.
On the other hand, someone who has a phobia of enclosed spaces (claustrophobia) will start to panic in, say, a stuck elevator. For this person, the brain starts the panic; it sends out danger signals; the body responds with adrenaline, a fast heart, sweating, and so forth; and finally the mind becomes aware that it’s supposed to panic!
In this case, the brain creates the panic, and the sufferer knows it because of the body responses.
Knowing this gives you power!
If your body is causing the panic
If you have regular problems where it’s obvious that there’s nothing logical to make you panic (such as a phobia), you could investigate if this is strictly a physical problem. The right person to ask is, of course, your doctor, who can run medical checks.
If it’s your body, not your mind, that causes your panic, there are some simple steps that you can take.
The first step is that your doctor might give you medication. I have medicine to calm my heart, and this usually does the job. (Always contact the emergency services if you think that you might be having a dangerous episode, such as a heart attack or serious suicidal thoughts.)
The next step is to deal with the effects, which I’ll describe shortly.
If your mind is causing the panic
If your mind is causing the panic, you’ll want to find appropriate therapy to deal with the cause, to prevent you from panicking in the first place. Several therapies deal with causes of panic, which can range from depression to a simple phobia to full-blown PTSD. Your doctor could prescribe, for example, CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), medication, or both. Many people find complementary therapy useful.
What to do when panic hits
Despite your best efforts, panic could still hit you. It can happen to anyone, and sometimes hits a person who least expects to ever feel panic.
So, what you can you do when you a panic attack rises and takes you on its frightening ride?
Basic tips to handle a panic attack.
- Be aware that your panic is not a reflection of reality. It’s way too easy to feel the panic and then to assume that whatever is in front of you is the cause. But it isn’t. There’s no sabretooth tiger. No one is about to kill you. (If someone is actually about to physically attack you or someone close to you, well, OK, that’s different.) When you know that the panic is simply an error in your mind or your body, the awareness by itself allows you to pause in your panic, and take the next step.
- Shut your eyes, even if just for a moment. Someone in genuine danger won’t close their eyes, so when you close your eyes, that primitive part of your brain has to stop and think, hold on, what’s going on here?
- Breathe in, but into your abdomen (your stomach), not into your chest. In other words, your stomach, not your chest, should rise. Chest breathing is for panicking. Abdominal breathing is for peace. Hold for just a moment. Breathe fully out, all the way.
Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Over and over.
When you breathe steadily, rhythmically, deeply, slowly, into your stomach and instead of your chest, that primitive part of your brain thinks, oh, your breathing is calm, so obviously nothing dangerous is happening; let me relax and let go.
- Finally, notice your thoughts. What thoughts are you thinking to yourself? Are those the same thoughts that you’d say to a good friend suffering from a panic attack? If you are thinking, “I’m gonna die!”, is that what you’d tell your friend? Grab hold of your thoughts, pretend that it’s not you, but your good friend who is panicking, and talk to you exactly as you would talk to your friend. Be kind! Be supportive! Be calm! The thoughts belong to you, and you have all the right in the world to change them. You do not have to accept automatic thoughts. Ever!
When you take these four steps, as simple as they might look, they give you great power.
If the cause of your panic attack is physical (such as my medical condition), it might do nothing to stop the appearance of a panic attack; but you will remain calm, able to do whatever your doctor has told you to do.
If the cause of your panic attack is emotional, you will find that you take back some of the power away from the panic, giving you more choice. Even if it doesn’t stop the attack, at least it will no longer control you, but instead you will control your responses. The panic attack should gradually lessen as the adrenaline drains away, your heart returns to normal, you stop sweating, and you take back your mind.
You will find that when you start to panic, all thought of trying the simple solutions go out of the window.
Because when panic hits, the primitive part of your brain — the one that does its best to protect you from danger — mistakenly thinks that you are in imminent danger. Therefore, this primitive part reasons, if you calm down, you’ll die! So, it doesn’t want you to calm down. It wants you to panic!
Of course, you know intellectually, logically, that this is nonsense: it’s just a panic attack; but the primitive part of your brain isn’t logical. It didn’t evolve to deal with mathematics, engineering and soap operas. It evolved to deal with sabretooth tigers, mortal injuries, famine, and so forth.
What can you do about this resistance?
Practice the four simple tips. Imagine that you are having a panic attack.
- Be aware that it’s just a panic attack, and not a reflection of reality.
- Shut your eyes, even if just for a moment.
- Breathe into your stomach. Hold. Breath out. Repeat, repeat, repeat…
- Take hold of your thoughts, and change them.
Here’s a funny thing about these steps. When you practice them, you just might feel yourself feeling better and better as time goes by. That’s because these tips are useful not just for panic attacks, but indeed for many other times and places in your life, even when you simply want to sit and meditate.
Practice these steps, over and over, in all areas of your life. When you are work. When you are at home. When you talk to friends. When you are running to catch the bus. Try it out in various different places and times, and notice what it does to you.
Enjoy greater control and greater peace of mind, and I wish you all the best of luck in dealing with your panic attacks.