Anxiety attacks can come on suddenly and cause a flood of physical and psychological symptoms. While they can happen to anyone, they’re especially common in those who are living with conditions such as general anxiety, depression, or panic disorder. There is also research that indicates that they’re hereditary, meaning that if there’s a family history of panic attacks, an individual is more likely to experience them. For those who have regular panic attacks, below are tips that can lessen their frequency and intensity.
What Are Anxiety or Panic Attacks?
The terms “anxiety attacks” and “panic attacks” are generally used interchangeably, and while they have similar symptoms, there is a key difference.
Anxiety attacks are in response to a stressor, such as a conflict at work, an activity that an individual has negative associations with, a big event, or a dangerous situation. Once the stressor is gone, the anxiety attack generally subsides. A panic attack, on the other hand, isn’t tied to a stressor. Instead, it occurs without provocation, and is therefore unpredictable and particularly stressful.
While the symptoms of an anxiety attack or a panic attack vary from person to person, many experience shortness of breath, dizziness, nausea, intense fear, and heart palpitations.
9 Tips for How to Deal with a Panic Attack
For those who experience panic or anxiety attacks, a two-fold approach is needed. First, the individual needs to know what to do in the middle of the attack. Second, it’s important to know how to prevent future attacks.
How to Stop a Panic Attack
1. Acknowledge and Accept the Panic Attack
Panic attacks can be scary, but the first step in taking control is recognizing the attack for what it is: a brief period of intense anxiety that, while it may be unpleasant, will come to an end. Attempting to find a distraction from the panic or deliberately telling oneself to redirect thoughts is rarely a successful tactic. Instead, the individual should acknowledge what they’re feeling, remember that the panic attack doesn’t indicate physical harm, and recognize that the panic will pass.
2. Breathe Slowly and Deeply
Rapid breathing, a common symptom of panic attacks, can increase feelings of anxiety and tension. Instead, it may be helpful for the individual to focus on taking long, slow breaths. Studies have shown that breathing slowly and deeply can slow the individual’s heart rate and lower their blood pressure. It stimulates the vagus nerve, which helps to minimize the body’s “fight or flight” response that creates feelings of anxiety. For these benefits, the individual should breathe steadily, inhaling for four slow beats and then exhaling for four slow beats.
3. Focus on Surroundings
During a panic attack, the individual may experience such strong symptoms that they feel detached from reality. Focusing on their surroundings through mindfulness exercises can re-ground them and remind them that they are in a safe place and no danger is present, despite what their brain is telling them.
Below is an example of a common mindfulness exercise. Each step should be completed carefully and slowly.
- Find five things in the immediate space and consider their appearance and function, thinking about each thing for some time.
- Listen for four distinct sounds, considering where they’re coming from and how they’re similar and different from one another.
- Touch three objects. Think about their temperature, texture and what they’re used for.
- Identify two smells and consider whether they’re pleasant or if they trigger any memories.
- Look for one item to taste, such as a piece of candy, a stick of gum or even a fingertip.
4. Limit Stimuli
Sights and sounds tend to worsen the intensity of a panic attack, and a panic attack tends to magnify the body’s perception of these stimuli. If possible, the individual should try to find a peaceful, quiet spot where there’s limited activity. This may mean leaving a room or simply turning away from activity and focusing on deep breathing and other coping strategies.
5. Tell Someone
If panic attacks happen frequently, whether they occur at a specific time of day or in the same environment every time, it may be helpful for the individual to let others know. Panic attacks are common experiences, and many people appreciate knowing how they can help someone who’s experiencing one.
How to Prevent Panic Attacks
Panic attacks may be unpredictable, but there are still steps that an individual can take to minimize their frequency.
6. Pay Attention to Triggers
Every person living with an anxiety disorder has a unique set of triggers, and what is extremely stressful for one person may pass under the radar for another. Some triggers include activities that may be associated with danger, such as driving or getting onto an airplane. Other triggers are a little more surprising. For some, a cluttered, disorganized environment may trigger a panic attack, while others may regularly experience an attack at a certain time of day or at the conclusion of an activity.
Tracking anxiety and panic attacks can be very useful in identifying patterns and triggers. While not all triggers can or even should be avoided, it may be possible for an individual to make small changes to their routine or environment to reduce their overall stress.
7. Create a Healthier Lifestyle
In the busyness of our days, it’s easy to let healthy habits slip. Unfortunately, when the body is out of balance, someone who experiences panic and anxiety attacks may notice an uptick in their frequency. Implementing the following strategies may help:
- Avoid or reduce the use of nicotine, alcohol or caffeine
- Follow a healthy diet based on whole foods
- Get sufficient sleep
- Drink enough water
8. Participate in Regular Aerobic Exercise
Aerobic exercise isn’t just heart-healthy, it’s also an important part of brain health. One study showed that light aerobic exercise may be among the best non-medical solutions for chronic anxiety, which is commonly associated with panic attacks. Moving the body decreases muscle tension, changes brain chemistry by increasing the production of anti-anxiety hormones, and helps control the amygdala, the reacting system for real or imagined threats.
It’s important to note that in the short term, very strenuous aerobic exercise can actually increase anxiety. To get the benefits of exercise for anxiety, individuals should focus on low- to moderate-intensity workouts like walking, light jogging or bicycling.
9. Talk to a Doctor
After the first panic attack, an individual should schedule a visit with their doctor as soon as possible. In some cases, panic and anxiety attacks share similar symptoms with other events, such as heart attacks or strokes.
For those who are living with anxiety and panic attacks, medical assistance is available. General practitioners can prescribe medication and direct patients towards treatment options that can help. However, if possible, patients should seek out care from a mental healthcare professional who has training specific to anxiety disorders and panic attacks.
Getting Help with FHE Health
A mental healthcare professional is specially trained to give clients the tools they need to reduce stress, avoid anxious thinking, and stop panic and anxiety attacks before they start. At FHE Heath, we use a variety of strategies such as cognitive behavioral therapy to help clients address attacks. If you or someone you know is ready to get help, contact us today at 844-222-0355.