Written by DiveThru Team
Reviewed by Dr. Justin Puder B.A, M.A, Ph.D
How To Stop a Panic Attack: 8 Powerful Coping Skills
Published Nov 17th, 2020 & updated on Jan 17th, 2022
Panic attacks SUCK. And if you’re trying to figure out how to deal with a panic attack, hi & welcome. If you’ve never had one, consider yourself lucky! Having a panic attack is a full-body experience that makes you feel like everything is collapsing inside and outside of yourself.
Sometimes they come out of nowhere, or they’re triggered by something that causes a person massive stress. One minute you can be fine, then all of a sudden, you’re smacked in the face with feelings of dread, anxiety, worry, sadness, and fear all rolled into one. It couldn’t just pick one awful emotion. A panic attack brings alllll of them to the panic party.
These feelings then start to show up in physical ways. Your heart beats faster, you start sweating, the world around you stops feeling real, and you can’t breathe. Your body is too hot, then all of a sudden, it’s too cold.
A weird tingling and numbness creeps into your limbs and your mouth starts to get really dry. It’s no wonder that some people feel like they’re dying the first time they experience a panic attack. This combination of these physical feelings and intense emotions rising all over your body all at once can be terrifying!
If you’re reading this article, you’ve probably had a panic attack before. Maybe you just had your first one! Well, we can reassure you that panic attacks are a totally normal physiological response to anxiety. We know that’s not much of a consolation because they feel AWFUL, but they’re normal.
What Is a Panic Attack?
The Mayo Clinic defines a panic attack as “a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause.” And if you’re wondering how long does a panic attack last, it’s luckily only somewhere between 5 to 20 minutes!
The Mayo Clinic goes on to say, “Panic attacks can be very frightening. When panic attacks occur, you might think you’re losing control, having a heart attack or even dying.”
So, if panic attacks suck so much, why do they even have to happen in the first place?
Well, they’re the body’s natural response to stress. Loooong ago when Woolley Mammoths were still a thing, humans developed physical responses to help keep us safe from predators and other dangers.
As we’ve evolved, we’ve kept these traits to try and protect ourselves from harm. We used to be anxious about being eaten by a bear, but now we’re anxious about so many other things that don’t cause us immediate physical danger.
Panic Attack Symptoms
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5 to its close friends), panic attacks are a period of intense discomfort that includes at least four of the following:
- Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
- Trembling or shaking
- Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
- Feeling of choking
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Nausea or abdominal distress
- Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint
- Derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself)
- Fear of losing control or “going crazy”
- Fear of dying
- Paresthesias (numbness or tingling sensation)
- Chills or heat sensations
Panic attacks are actually different from anxiety attacks, despite the two terms often being used interchangeably to refer to panic attacks. While panic attacks are short episodes of physical and emotional discomfort, anxiety disorders are more broadly defined as when feelings of anxiety begin to interfere with day-to-day life. Unlike panic attacks, anxiety attacks are technically not in the DSM-5.
We have an entire article about the physical signs of anxiety and why they happen, so check it out if you’re really curious about what’s going on inside your body when you have a panic attack. Long story short, panic attacks and all their physical symptoms are just your body’s way of protecting you from danger.
We can rationalize our anxiety by saying that it’s just a response to stress, but that doesn’t really help us cope and DiveThru it, does it? Let’s see what else we can do.
(psst if you’re in need of some stress management tips, we’ve got those too).
8 Ways To Get Through a Panic Attack
It can be hard to calm yourself down while your brain and body are trying to get a handle on the situation. The time to research how to handle a panic attack should preferably not be while you’re having one. And while there’s no magic cure to stop a panic attack immediately, here are 8 ways that you can help yourself get through one.
1. Focus on a Target Spot
Fun fact: panic attacks can actually make you more aware of your surroundings! You can start to feel easily overwhelmed by all the things happening in your space. There can be too many bright lights or loud sounds around you, so it can be hard to reflect on what you need to get through this moment of panic.
Find one object in the room to keep your mind focused while you work through your panic attack. Maybe it’s your computer screen background. Maybe you look out your window to focus on someone cutting their grass.
Whatever you decide to give your attention to, make sure that it’s calming for you in a moment when you’re definitely the opposite of calm!
2. Close Your Eyes
Like we mentioned in the tip above, you can become easily overwhelmed while panicking if there are too many stimuli around you. So, take a second, close your eyes, and just concentrate on breathing. Ask yourself what you need at this moment to help quell this panic attack.
3. Visualize Your Safe Place
While you’re closing your eyes, visualize a safe space. Think about your favourite place in the world. Imagine this one specific space in as much detail as possible. What sounds do you hear? What’s around you?
You can personalize this imaginary space too! After all, it’s your safe place! If you’re on a beach, add a cozy couch that sits near the water. Maybe there’s even a side table for you to rest your books and coffee on. Make it comfy, make it happy, make it yours!
Practice being in this safe space regularly and intentionally when you’re feeling calm (or, at least, you’re not panicking). This way, you’ll be able to more easily slip into this visual when your body and mind are in a heightened state.
4. Take Deep Breaths
There is one breathing technique called Equal Breathing that we love! To do this exercise, you breathe in through your nose for a count of four, pause when your lungs are full of air, then exhale through your nose for a count of four. Pause at the end of the exhale when you’ve emptied your lungs and feel the sensations that come with it. Repeat these steps for as long as you need. We’re practicing this as we write this article!
This is just one of many breathing exercises that we like to practice, but when you’re not in a panicked state, you should definitely take a look at different breathing techniques for anxiety and find one that really resonates with you.
5. Remind Yourself That This Is Just a Panic Attack
Panic attacks are usually accompanied by the feeling that you’re having a heart attack or that you’re going to die. Like, why do they have to be so scary?!
When you’re in the middle of a panic attack, it’s important to repeat affirmations or phrases that can help you remember that you’re going to be ok.
These sayings can be along the lines of:
Panic can’t hurt me. This is only panic.
You got this. Just breathe. You got this.
They don’t have to be complex at all! Find one that really resonates with you and that you find helpful when you’re scared shitless.
If you’re looking for a deeper understanding of panic disorder, check out Dr. Justin Puder’s course “Understanding Panic” in the DiveThru app. You can learn why panic attacks happen, what happens physiologically during one, and why they feel so gosh darn intense. He also has some helpful long-term tips for coping with panic attacks.
6. Remind Yourself That This Will Be Over Soon
It feels like we’ve given you a million things to think about, but let’s add one more to the list, shall we?
A panic attack can last for several minutes at a time. But in the moment, it feels like it’s never going to end, which can be terrifying.
We know that riding it out can seem like the worst advice anyone could give, but it’s true! Just go with the flow and know that you won’t feel like this for long.
Try to remember, panic attacks don’t last forever. If you’ve ever been through one before, think about how that one eventually came to an end. You made it to the other side, and you survived!
7. Teach Someone How To Help You
If you’re anything like us, you probably hate the idea of having a panic attack in front of another person. But sometimes it’s really helpful to have someone there to support you during a moment when you don’t know how to support yourself. And vice versa! Do you know how to help a friend with anxiety?
If you feel comfortable enough talking to a friend, partner, parent, or coworker, let them know what you need ahead of time, especially if you know there is a potential stressor/trigger coming up. This way, they can jump into action when you start to panic. It can be hard to ask for support when experiencing a panic attack, so having someone ready to support you can be an AMAZING help.
8. Get Medical Help
Going to the hospital for a panic attack is a lot more common than you might think, and it’s actually super helpful! It’s better to be safe than sorry, so if you feel like you need medical attention, see if you can have a friend of yours or a family member take you to the ER to get some help.
Sometimes, the symptoms of a panic attack can resemble a heart attack, so if you think that you’re having either or, pleaseeee don’t hesitate to go to the ER!
Doctors who work in the emergency room are definitely willing to help you out when you’re having a panic attack. They’re super understanding and sympathetic. They are also equipped to help treat anxiety in a variety of ways. They can monitor your vital signs to see how you’re doing and then help you out by calming you down with advice or medication.
So, there you have it! We hope that you don’t have to experience toooo many more of these in the future because they are the opposite of a good time! But at least now you know what to do during a panic attack!
Breathe, remember that we’re on your side and that you can get through anything your brain throws your way!