Panic attacks are frightening and uncomfortable - people who suffer from panic attacks often feel as if they're going to die. The symptoms can include: pounding heart, sweating, shaking arms and legs, and difficulty breathing - it is your autonomic nervous systems attempt to keep you safe from a perceived threat.
While highly unpleasant, panic attacks are harmless. A panic attack is something your body created, so, you also have the power to lessen and eliminate the attack. If panic attacks are controlling your life, you can regain that control.
Stop a panic attack quickly and effectively with these techniques:
1. Remind yourself that you're going to be okay. Your body chemistry is slightly off-kilter when you experience a panic attack and panicking will only intensify the attack. The sooner you can relax, the more quickly the attack will pass.
2. Focus on deep breathing. Breathing is the only part of human physiology over which we have complete control. Anytime you're awake, you can choose to breathe faster, slower, deeper, shallower, or hold your breath. Slow, deep breathing will slow your heart rate, and you'll begin to feel better. One breath we love is called the Double Gulp Breath:
Do this sitting as it may cause slight light-headedness (do NOT do this while driving!)
Breathe in slowly through your nostrils, filling your entire abdominal and chest cavities with as much air as you can handle (yes, push that belly way out!)
Just when you think you're full, take a second "gulp" of air through your nose to "top you off"
Then very, very, very slowly exhale through your mouth as if you're breathing out through a straw
As you're slowly exhaling, slowly fold your head down, chin to chest, then fold your upper body down, using your natural body weight to "wring out" all the air from your lungs, just like you're wringing out a towel.
Once you're empty, take a few nice, easy, regular breaths and notice the calmness in your body.
3. Physical Touch. This might not always be practical, but get someone to rub your neck and shoulders - if there is nobody around, you can rub your arms and legs. Most importantly, massage your scalp. You can even do this yourself. Massaging your scalp will move a greater volume of blood through your brain and will help to relax the muscles of your head and neck.
4. Use your imagination. Your mind can only think one thought at a time, so tell your mind to "change channels" and imagine something pleasant and relaxing. It might be hard to think of something positive in the moment, so we suggest you have a few ideas before a panic attack strikes. TIP: some of our clients keep a running list of "happy thoughts" in the notes app on their smartphones for times like this!
5. Get moving. Movement will help to eliminate the chemicals that are creating the feeling of panic. Have a one song, wild, dance party. If you're in a place that makes dancing impractical, roll your head, wrists and ankles and vigorously shake your arms. You could also do a few rounds up and down a set of stairs.
6. Cold water! If you can, fill a bowl or the sink with ice water (as cold as you can get it) and dunk your face in it, holding your breath for as long as you can. Repeat this 3-4 times... it will shock your autonomic nervous system enough to re-set it! If you can't "dunk" a cold shower, a cannonball into a cold pool, or even just holding ice cubes in your hands till you can't stand it will do the trick
7. Listen to music that relaxes you. Few things can change your mood and biochemistry faster than the right music. Create a song list of at least 10 songs that you find comforting and relaxing. Begin listening to your music as soon as a panic attack begins. Take slow, deep breaths.
8. Conversely, listen to music you can let off steam to! I have a really obnoxious "rage metal" playlist I will pop in the car and scream and head bang to if I feel a lot of pent up energy I need to shake out!
9. Get more magnesium in your body. Magnesium has a profound calming effect on the body. Take a magnesium supplement and eat magnesium rich foods (dark chocolate contains high levels of magnesium and is more fun than swallowing a pill). An Epsom salt bath will also cause your body to absorb high levels of magnesium... add a few drops of a calming essential oil like lavender for an added layer of chillax.
10. Be proactive. If you suffer a panic attack, your body was sensing some sort of threat and often your mind was already stressed about something. Finding ways to maintain a sense of calm, evenness all day long is much more practical than waiting until you're having a crisis. Be sure you're working on mindfulness, moving your body regularly, eating well, and spending quality social time. A regular practice of self-care is the absolute best way to avoid panic in the first place
11. Work with a therapist who is trained in polyvagal theory. They can help you understand and shift your autonomic nervous systems' reactions.