Panic attacks are no joke. During a panic attack, you can literally feel like you’re about to die. That’s because not only is one of the classic signs of a panic attack a feeling of doom, but physical symptoms like shortness of breath, dizziness, nausea, and chest pain can be very similar to symptoms of a heart attack.
All of this can be extremely terrifying if you don’t know what’s going on. It’s why so many people go to the emergency room during a panic attack.
But the good news is that the more you learn about panic attacks, the less scary they become. Here are some ways to fight back against that anxiety-driven thought process.
Feeling the onset of a panic attack? Focus on your breathing. One of the best ways to slow down your body’s reaction to anxiety is to practice deep breathing, says Dr. Vinita Mehta, a clinical psychologist based in Washington, D.C. Taking slow, deep, mindful breaths can help you relax in the moment.
“There's solid science behind this,” says Dr. Mehta. “Breathing deeply can tamp down the stress response system,” she says.
If you aren’t sure how to practice breathing exercises on your own, there are lots of phone apps and meditation videos that can guide you through the relaxation process.
“Try breathing through your nose and exhaling through your mouth,” suggests Dr. Mehta. “Some people find it helpful to close their eyes, and/or to count to five with each inhale and exhale.”
2. Get to a quiet space
Panic attacks can happen when we least expect them. Sometimes they can happen in less than ideal situations. When you’re in the middle of a panic attack, the last thing you want is more stimuli.
If possible, move to a quieter space where you can focus on relaxation techniques. This doesn’t mean avoiding situations altogether. It means giving yourself some time to regroup before returning. It might be as simple as stepping into the bathroom for a few minutes to do some deep breathing.
3. Visualize something peaceful
Ever heard someone say they’re mentally going to their happy place? It might actually help to picture an image or imagine yourself in a peaceful setting.
“Sometimes picturing a peaceful image can help to engage the parasympathetic nervous system,” says Dr. Mehta.
The parasympathetic nervous system is the part of your nervous system that helps the body rest and digest after experiencing a fight-or-flight reaction, like the feeling brought on by a panic attack. If you tap into this process, you might be able to bring yourself down from the frightening out-of-control feelings.
4. Use progressive muscle relaxation
Dr. Mehta recommends trying progressive muscle relaxation, which, she says, basically involves tensing and releasing your muscles one muscle group at a time. For example, you could tense your toes, hold for a few seconds, then release.
This technique helps you focus on different muscle groups and tell the difference between what the muscle feels like when it’s tense versus relaxed. It causes you to be aware of how your body is feeling in the moment.
5. Know your physical health status
Knowing more about your physical health puts you in a better position to tell the difference between panic attack symptoms and signs of a medical condition. Going to your doctor for regular checkups can help you rule out other conditions that would be cause for alarm.
“A doctor will be able to differentiate whether the symptoms of panic — shortness of breath, rapid heart rate, shaking and sweating, etc. — are the result of a medical condition or anxiety,” says Dr. Mehta. “Also, if you do have a medical condition, educate yourself about those symptoms and how they differ from panic and anxiety.”
Think about the specific symptoms you’re experiencing. Are they things common during a panic attack? Remind yourself of the conversations with your doctor. Go over the logic in your head or say it out loud.
6. Remind yourself this will pass
Panic attacks generally last only for a few minutes, although they can feel a lot longer in the moment. Tell yourself you’re having a panic attack and that that’s OK. You don’t have to try and control it. Just knowing what’s happening can help that feeling of doom lose some of its power.
“It's helpful to remind yourself that a panic attack will pass and will not kill you,” says Dr. Mehta.
7. Practice healthy habits
In addition to the tips above, there are healthy habits you can incorporate into your lifestyle that can also help reduce anxiety and panic attacks.
“Eating well, getting enough rest, [and] getting regular exercise can be helpful with stress reduction overall,” says Dr. Mehta.
Research shows that regular aerobic exercise like running, biking, or other moderate to high-intensity cardio can actually reduce anxiety symptoms. Alcohol, cigarettes, and caffeine can also be triggers. Cutting them out of your lifestyle can reduce panic attacks.
If panic attacks are keeping you from living the life you want, don’t be afraid to ask for help. A therapist will be able to help you identify triggers and give you tools to prevent and manage future attacks.