- While you can’t exactly stop a panic attack, there are many ways to manage the sudden onset of anxiety.
- When you’re having a panic attack, steady and stable breathing is one of the best tools to get through it.
- Therapy and medication can also help those with more frequent panic attacks.
- This article was medically reviewed by Mayra Mendez, PhD, LMFT, is a licensed psychotherapist at Providence Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center.
Panic attacks are a brief, sudden onset of intense anxiety or fear. They can occur anywhere at any time, and to anyone. Panic attacks often occur “out of the blue,” and many people don’t have a known trigger.
While panic attacks can be scary and overwhelming, they are somewhat common: About 23% of Americans will have one in their lifetime. Many people who experience a single panic attack do not have another episode, says David A. Merrill, MD, PhD, a psychiatrist at the Pacific Neuroscience Institute.
Here’s what you need to know about how to overcome and stop a panic attack.
Understand the symptoms of a panic attack
Learning the symptoms of a panic attack can help you better understand what you’re going through and what steps to take to respond to your distress.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), there are 13 types of panic attack symptoms, ranging from physical to emotional. Common physical symptoms include rapid heart rate, trembling, and shortness of breath, while emotional symptoms include loss of control and fear of dying.
The ADAA says that if you’re experiencing four or more of these 13 symptoms, it’s considered a panic attack, though limited-symptom panic attacks can also occur.
Acknowledge and accept the panic attack
A panic attack is an over-activation of the body’s sympathetic nervous system, which triggers the fight or flight response, Merrill says. While your instincts will tell you to avoid the unpleasant situation, refusing to accept the panic attack may just escalate and prolong it.
Instead, confront the symptoms and concentrate on your perspective. When dealing with a panic attack, it’s important to remember that it doesn’t last long and typically resolves itself within 10 minutes. Panic attacks are unpleasant, but they’re not physically harmful.
Focus on deep breathing
During a panic attack, you’ll want to calm your sympathetic nervous system with actions that activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which produces a relaxed feeling in the body. For example, taking slow, deep breaths can stimulate the vagus nerve, which will then activate the parasympathetic nervous system, Merrill says.
There are many ways to practice mindful breathing, but here is a quick example:
- Find a comfortable place to either stand, sit, or lie down.
- Place one hand on your stomach.
- Inhale deep through your nose and fill your belly with air.
- Exhale and empty all the air from your lungs. With your hand, focus on the movement of your belly as it expands and contracts.
- Repeat for 10 breaths or as long as necessary to refocus and relax.
Controlled breathing can be the fastest, most effective way to trigger your body’s relaxation response and lower your heart rate during a panic attack.
Practice mindfulness techniques
Beyond deep breathing, mindfulness, or the quality of being present and fully engaged with your body and your surroundings, can go a long way in overcoming feelings of loss of control.
To create a barrier between the physical and emotional dread of a panic attack, bring your attention to each of your senses and ground yourself in the present. A few ways to do this include:
- Visually exploring every aspect of an object in your surroundings
- Focusing on the weight and feeling of a single object
- Paying close attention to the sounds around you
- Concentrating on a specific smell, like an essential oil
- Envisioning each individual muscle from your head to toes tensing, and then relaxing
By taking a moment to pause and reflect, you may be able to reorient yourself and better handle the sudden rush of anxiety.
When you should see a doctor for treatment
“Isolated panic attacks are not dangerous,” Merrill says. The danger comes when people change their behaviors in hopes of avoiding another panic attack.
This can lead to agoraphobia, a fear of situations that may cause panic, and social isolation. People who feel that their panic attack experience is impacting their life on an on-going basis should seek medical help, starting with their primary care physician, Merrill says.
If you’re experiencing recurring panic attacks, there are a few treatment plans available.
Cognitive behavioral therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy can both be effective interventions for panic attacks and panic disorder. In CBT, patients are slowly introduced to triggers for their anxiety. With the help of a clinician, they learn how to better control their response in order to manage their anxiety.
A 2018 study found that even limited CBT — two days of intensive sessions — produced results that lasted for a year. Merrill says that through CBT, people can regain control over their thought processes, and learn how to intervene when they feel an attack coming on.
Medication can also help control and stop panic attacks. For example, benzodiazepines, like Xanax, are the most commonly-prescribed medication for panic attacks.
Research indicates that benzodiazepines are an effective short-term intervention for treating panic disorder. They work by depressing the body’s nervous system, which is over-activated during a panic attack. However, benzodiazepines have a high risk of dependency, so they shouldn’t be used long-term, Merrill says.
SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), like Zoloft or Paxil, are another class of drugs used to treat depression and anxiety. Since panic disorder is an anxiety disorder, SSRIs are effective for people with panic disorder, especially when combined with CBT.
The Bottom Line
Panic attack symptoms vary from person to person, and there is no one prescribed way to stop a panic attack when it happens. But with the right knowledge and tools, there are ways to control and lessen the symptoms.
As for underlying panic disorders, Merrill says treatments can be very effective. But if left untreated, a panic disorder can lead to conditions such as agoraphobia, or a fear of being in certain places, especially in public. Be sure to consult your doctor right away to talk about your symptoms.
Most of all, patients should remember that they’re not alone. “There’s a lot of anxiety in society these days,” Merrill says. “Patients should seek help and feel comfortable sharing what they’re going through. The more they share, the more resources they’ll find for getting help.”