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How to Stop A Panic Attack While It's Happening

November 5, 2018

 

 

To Stop a Panic Attack While It's Happening You Will:

 

1. First learn what a panic attack is
2. Learn to respond and not react
3. Change how you communicate with your amygdala
4. Reduce your fear of the symptoms
5. Turn on your parasympathetic nervous system

6. Give up control to get control

7. Practice

 


1. Understand What a Panic Attack is and isn’t. 

 

 

The first step to stop a panic attack while it's happening is to learn and understand what is happening when you are having a panic attack.

 

A panic attack is NOT life threatening.  

 

The symptoms that you experience during a panic attack are actually the body’s evolutionary response to keep us alive, also known as the fight, flight, or freeze response. 

 

The fight, flight, or freeze response is helpful if we encounter a wild animal ready to eat us. The adrenaline that begins flowing through our bodies helps us escape and survive. 

 

When the animal is defeated or evaded, the symptoms disappear. 

 

For most people today, however, there is no wild animal trying to eat them.  It’s a false alarm. Like a smoke alarm that goes off while cooking, the alarm is loud and unpleasant but the alarm itself is never dangerous, and the house will not burn down.

 

During times of stress or danger, your senses send messages to your amygdala in the brain. 

 

The amygdala is your emotional center and is responsible for causing the feeling of fear. 

 

The thinking part of your brain also gets this message so that you can determine if the danger is real or not.

When your amygdala gets the message that there is danger, it sounds the alarm and instantly your body releases adrenaline to help you react to the danger. This causes the symptoms you feel during a panic attack.

You are now ready to react to these symptoms with your thoughts and actions.

 

If you believe the danger is real, you will continue to have fearful thoughts and you may take action by running away or becoming over-controlled and freezing.

This reaction will continue to send the message to your amygdala that there is danger and your body will continue to release adrenaline, increasing the symptoms of the fight, flight, or freeze response.

A panic attack happens when you believe that there is danger when no danger exists at all. 

 

 

Symptoms of a Panic Attack

  • Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate

  • Sweating

  • Trembling or shaking

  • Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering

  • Feelings of choking

  • Chest pain or discomfort

  • Nausea or abdominal distress

  • Feeling dizzy, unsteady, light-headed, or faint

  • Chills or heat sensations

  • Numbness or tingling sensations

  • De-realization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself)

  • Fear of losing control or “going crazy”

  • Fear of dying

 

 

Panic attacks can be expected or unexpected. 

 

An example of an unexpected panic attack is called a nocturnal panic attack. This is when a person wakes from sleeping in a state of panic. 

 

Expected panic attacks occur in specific situations that are either anxiety provoking or situations where a person experienced a panic attack and now avoids it for fear that it will trigger another one. 

 

Specific phobias such as fear of flying and public speaking could also trigger a panic attack due to increased anxiety and fear of the event itself.

 

People will often avoid situations that either trigger panic attacks, situations that just become associated with panic attacks, or places where escape to safety may be difficult. 

 

In extreme cases people stop leaving their homes and become agoraphobic or fearful of a wide range of situations that feel unsafe. 

 

Panic attacks also may occur with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and with Depression.

 

For more information on what a panic attack is; check out an article written by Karen Pallarito titled, "14 Signs You Could Be Having a Panic Attack" on Health.com. She does a great job at explaining the symptoms of a panic attack. 

 

 

2. Learn to Respond and not React

 

 

The next step to stop a panic attack while it's happening is to respond to the symptoms and not react.

 

Responding and reacting may appear the same but they are different. A reaction is quick, emotional, and is protective. 

We react out of emotion (fear and anger), with little thought involved. We often feel out of control when we react to our emotions. Sometimes our emotions are not accurate or helpful.

During a panic attack you have been reacting to the physical symptoms out of fear rather than responding rationally. 

When having a panic attack you most likely have been running away from the situation, avoiding situations you associate with panic attacks, or becoming over-controlled when feeling anxious.

 

Avoiding confirms and maintains the belief that the situation and/or the symptoms are dangerous. You might not have a panic attack by avoiding a particular place but you have also reinforced that whatever you just avoided is dangerous.

 

 

 

 

Responding requires more cognitive awareness and rational thought. It involves a higher level of thinking and reasoning that takes into account your beliefs, facts, and knowledge.  

Responding is a deliberate and conscious decision. Responding also involves knowing that you have choices in how to respond. 

 

Responding takes practice.

4 Steps to Responding:

 

  1. Ask yourself, “What is happening right now?

  2. Ask yourself, “How am I reacting?”

  3. Label the feeling, “What am I feeling?”

  4. Ask yourself, “What are my choices?”

 

3. Change How You Communicate with Your Amygdala

 

 

Changing the way you think and behave, changes the way you communicate with your amygdala.

 

Changing how you communicate with your amygdala has the power to stop a panic attack fast!

 

Your amygdala will believe whatever you tell it. If you continue to react with thoughts that you are in danger and you believe the myths about panic attacks, then your amygdala will continue to sound the alarm.

 

Communicating with your amygdala more accurately will help to stop a panic attack fast.

 

Start responding with more accurate and helpful thoughts about what is happening.

 

Tell yourself that you know you are not in any danger because you know what a panic attack is.

 

Label Your Emotions

 

A brain imaging study at UCLA discovered that when people were shown a photograph of an angry or fearful face, they had increased activity in the amygdala and the left prefrontal cortex (Matthew D. Lieberman et. al. 2007)

 

But when people attached a feeling word such as “Afraid,” there was decreased activity in the amygdala and increased activity in the right prefrontal cortex. They discovered that only “feeling words” caused a decrease in the amygdala and an increase in the right prefrontal cortex. Attaching a name like “Coffee” did not have the same effect.

 

So Labeling your emotions during a panic attack has the potential to turn on your right prefrontal cortex and shut off your amygdala.

 

Challenge your inaccurate and unhelpful thoughts. Ask yourself:

  1. What do I think is happening during a panic attack?

  2. "I feel light headed and I think I will faint.”

  3. What facts or experiences suggest that this thought is not true?

“I learned that fainting only occurs when blood pressure is low and there is a lack of oxygen to the brain, and during a panic attack, blood pressure is actually high and there is more oxygen in the brain. Also I have never fainted before.  So I will not faint.”

 

 

 4. Reduce your fear of the symptoms

 

 

You can reduce your fear of the symptoms of a panic attack by being able to create, control, and understand the physical and mental feelings of a panic attack with exposure exercises.

 

Exposure exercises:

  • Running in place for 30 - 60 seconds (racing heart, breathlessness, chest discomfort).

  • Rapid breathing just long enough to begin experiencing dizziness, breathlessness, racing heart, numbness and tingling.

  • Breathe in and out through a small straw for 30 – 60 seconds while pinching nostrils (choking sensations, breathlessness, racing heart).

  • Shaking head from side to side for 30 seconds (dizziness).

  • Spinning around in place or spinning in a chair for 30 seconds (dizziness, nausea).

  • Hold breath for 15 to 30 seconds (breathlessness, dizziness).

  • Stare at yourself in a mirror or stare at a blank wall for two minutes or long enough to experience feelings of unreality.

 

5. Turn on Your Parasympathetic Nervous System

 

 

The parasympathetic nervous system is also called the “Rest and Digest” system.  This will help to significantly reduce the physical symptoms of a panic attack.  It produces a calm and relaxed feeling by;

  • Decreasing the heart rate

  • Dilating the blood vessels

  • Increasing salivation

  • Stimulating tear production

  • Stimulating the digestive system

  • Increasing a feeling of calm

  • Improves sexual arousal

 

You can turn on your parasympathetic nervous system with deep breathing exercises and by exposing yourself to cold temperatures.

 

Diaphragmatic Breathing Exercise:

 

  • Inhale through your nose slowly by expanding from your belly first then fill your upper lungs for a count of 5.​

  • Hold your breath for a count of 2.

  • Exhale slowly and forcefully through pursed lips for a count of 10.

  • Repeat this 5 to 10 times or do it for at least 1 minute.

 

Exposure to Cold

 

Research indicates that your sympathetic (fight or flight) system slows down and your parasympathetic system increases when your body adjusts to cold temperatures (Makinen et. al. 2008). It appears that any kind of cold exposure works such as drinking cold water, running hands under cold water, and splashing cold water on your face.

 

 

6. Give up Control to Get Control Over Your Panic Attack

 

 

This is where you change your behavior and face your fear in order to stop a panic attack.

 

Research indicates that exposure to fear is the most effective way of overcoming that fear and is the one of the most effective ways to stop a panic attack fast.

 

In order to free yourself from panic attacks, you need to know that you can defeat and stop them. 

 

For this to happen, you need to have the experience of actually lessening the symptoms of a panic attack, stopping it, or not having one at all. 

 

This means staying in a panic situation or approaching a feared situation, and being able to apply these strategies at the first sign of a panic attack. 

 

So basically you will need to be in a situation to have a panic attack. 

 

If you have been dealing with panic attacks regularly then you will definitely get your chance to use these techniques during a panic attack. 

 

When it comes to anxiety and panic, the more controlling you are by physically or mentally escaping, the more out of control you will feel. 

 

Panic attacks cause people to feel out of control. 

 

Remember that when the sympathetic nervous system (Fight or Flight) kicks in, it is fast, automatic, and is activated mostly without our conscious control. 

 

This is why you feel out of control and fear losing control during a panic attack. Most people attempt to gain more control or maintain control when panicking. 

 

If you are driving when a panic attack happens, you may grip the steering wheel tighter. You become over-controlled in response to panic and your fear of losing control. 

 

Unfortunately, this reinforces the false perception that there is danger. This can increase the level of anxiety and further fuel a panic attack. 

 

So you are not really maintaining control, you are maintaining fear and anxiety. 

By increasing your level of control when anxious, you communicate to your amygdala that you are in danger.

 

Your amygdala sounds the alarm and then your sympathetic nervous system works harder to dump more adrenaline into your blood stream. This escalates the cycle of panic.

Decide to give up control and allow yourself to feel the anxiety without mentally or physically escaping or avoiding. 

 

Say “Hello anxiety and panic, come on in.”

 

This sends the message to your amygdala that there is no danger and that you can actually tolerate what you are feeling.

 

 

 

 

Realize that you just gained control by giving up control!  

 

 

7. Practice

 

 

Practice these skills when you are not anxious. With repetition you will actually retrain your brain to respond differently to a panic attack.

Practice and use these skills anytime you feel nervous or anxious.

Teach someone else how to use these skills.

 

 

For more information:

 

Please purchase my book “Attacking Panic:  The Power to Be Calm” for more in depth information on how to stop panic attacks quickly and how to treat the root cause (Amygdala/Sympathetic Nervous System). 

 

The book shows you how to go beyond just giving up control and allowing yourself to experience a panic attack.  

 

The book has more powerful strategies that will short-circuit your fight or flight system, stop a panic attack very quickly, and even prevent a panic attack from occurring. 

 

 

 

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Russell Hunter, Psy.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist

I want to help you. Please feel free to contact me confidentially by email below with any questions or if you need some advice about the content posted on The Fear Blog.

Attacking Panic: The Power To Be Calm. Copyright © 2017 Russell A. Hunter, Psy.D. All rights reserved. Attacking Panic is available in paperback and Kindle edition at Amazon and in paperback at Barnes & Noble and other online retailers.

How to Stop A Panic Attack Quickly.

Russell A. Hunter, Psy.D. Psychology Today Profile

National Register of Health Service Psychologists

8644 Sudley Road, Suite 315 Manassas VA 20110

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