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
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
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:
Ask yourself, “What is happening right now?”
Ask yourself, “How am I reacting?”
Label the feeling, “What am I feeling?”
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:
What do I think is happening during a panic attack?
"I feel light headed and I think I will faint.”
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.
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
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 appe