Out of nowhere, I noticed that the room is spinning around me. Panic grips my body and thoughts of negativity, anxiety, fear, and worst-case scenarios are jabbing at me on all sides. I’m crying and no matter what I do, panic feels like it has total control over me. I’m desperate and wondering how to stop panic attacks fast because otherwise, I feel like I’m going to die.
Has this happened to you before?
Panic attacks are far more common than we think.
As a licensed mental health professional, I frequently come across people who have panic attacks and go to the hospital because they think they are having a heart attack.
Though panic attacks feel terrible and overwhelming, it’s helpful to learn more about them.
That way you, not the panic attack, are in the driver’s seat next time it comes around.
What a panic attack feels like
If you’ve had a panic attack before, you will relate to how it feels.
For me, it starts with a heaviness in my chest. My heart is pounding too fast and as though a 50-pound weight has been set on my chest.
“It arrives like a wave: sometimes you can see it cresting over the horizon, and sometimes it knocks you off your feet without warning. Either way, it feels like you’re helpless to stop it.”Lauren Saccone Helpful tips for riding out a panic attack
I also feel like someone is gripping my throat with their hands attempting to choke me. I can’t think straight and feel like I’m spiraling in the middle of a tornado.
It’s impossible for me to think clearly.
A panic attack basically feels like something has hijacked your mind and body.
What happens to your body when you have a panic attack
When you are thinking about how to stop panic attacks fast, it is vital to understand what is actually going on in your mind and body.
Remember that your brain is a powerful machine similar to a computer.
When a panic attack occurs, the thinking part of your brain, also known as the prefrontal cortex, shuts down. This frees you up so you can “run from the lion.”
“Often, it feels like you’re having a heart attack. They’re very real and terrifying. An anxiety attack tends to happen because of a specific stressful situation, like giving a presentation or a social event. But panic attacks can seemingly come out of nowhere. Panic attacks are the body’s way of physically signaling that the amount of stress someone is enduring is too high, and that often, people are living in a more stressed-out state than they even realize.”Lana Seiler, LCSW
Conversely, your amygdala, a pea-sized part of your mammalian brain gets activated. This part of your brain is closely linked to your autonomic nervous system which prepares your body for a flight or fight response to an imminent threat.
Even if that threat is imaginary, anticipatory, or just plain negative anxiety-provoking thoughts.
When we stay stuck in this fight or flight response, it turns into a panic attack.
Why it turns into a panic attack:
- We are stuck in a thought loop that maintains the danger
- We cannot physically escape the danger
- We are having a trauma response
Since your prefrontal cortex isn’t functioning, your nervous system floods your body with high levels of adrenaline and cortisol.
Common feelings of panic attacks:
- Sensations of chest pain and contraction
- Feeling like someone is choking you
- Uncontrollable crying and high levels of distress
- The room is closing in on you
- Feeling like you can’t breath
As much as you would like to, when you’re in the throes of a panic attack it is difficult to control your body’s automatic response.
How to stop a panic attack before it starts happening
If you’re wondering how to stop a panic attack before it starts happening, I recommend learning how to self-regulate.
One way is to check in with your body regularly when you’re NOT having a panic attack. Give yourself a number between 0-10 (0 is you don’t panic and 10 is you feel like you’re going to die.) This number is your baseline.
Once you have a baseline number, call that your “I feel okay right now” number.
Take control. Feel better.
Start your Self-care Journey.
On a daily basis, do a check-in regularly and ask yourself “Where am I between 0-10 right now?”
If you notice your number is creeping up higher, it’s time to take action by practicing some self-care.
When you learn to self-regulate and activate your parasympathetic nervous system (responsible for rest and digestion), you will learn to prevent the intensity of a panic attack.
What to do when you’re having a panic attack
The best tip from both personal experiences as well as clinical experience is this:
- Don’t try to fight your panic attack because it will only get worse
- If you notice the panic attack coming on, recognize it right away and physically put yourself in a safe situation
- If you’re driving, pull over and turn off the car
- If you’re in the middle of a meeting, say that you need a break and step away
- If you’re at work in a shared office, tell people you need a short break and go outside or to the bathroom
In order to activate your parasympathetic nervous system, you have to physically manipulate your body because your brain is not thinking clearly.
How to stop panic attacks fast
When you’re in the midst of a panic attack, it’s critical that you find a safe space. Whether that is in a room separate from others or even the bathroom.
Once you’re in a safe room and space, start doing any of the following:
1. Start tapping
Tapping is an effective and fast way to regulate your nervous system quickly. When you tap, you are activating different parts of your parasympathetic nervous system. This helps you quickly calm down your mind and body.
The emotional freedom technique (EFT), also known as tapping, is an alternative treatment for physical pain and emotional distress.
2. Go on a walk or dance
When you’re in the midst of a panic attack, your body prepares you to flee an imminent threat.
In reality, there’s no actual threat but your body does not know that it is flooding you with adrenaline and cortisol with nowhere to go.
The solution to this physical distress is to actually move your body!
When you physically move your body, it will signal to your mind that you’re responding to intense physical feelings and sensations.
3. Use cold water
Studies have shown that cold water can reduce cortisol levels, release endorphins, and bring down your heart rate. This helps stop panic attacks fast!
Your wrists have major arteries, so running cool water on your wrists will help cool the rest of your body.
Another option is to use ice cubes in your hand or your mouth.
Something cold like an ice cube or even cold water jolts your nervous system. It helps to steer it away from the panic response and releases chemicals into your body that counter a panic attack by slowing down the release of cortisol and adrenaline.
4. Call a friend
Since I suffer from anxiety, I have a few phone numbers on speed dial that I use regularly.
Recently while I was in the middle of my panic attack, I called my husband. He listened to me and kept repeating the following “You’re safe, Pantea.”
Eventually, his message came through and I was able to calm down.
5. Try to remember it’s temporary
I know that when I’m having a panic or anxiety attack I feel like I’m going to die and that this will last forever.
Realistically it doesn’t.
Panic attacks are short-lived so try to remember that.
6. Take a few deep breaths
I’m sure you’ve heard this before but try to take deep breaths as it will help stop your panic attacks.
For me personally, it’s hard to breathe deeply when I’m in the midst of a panic attack.
I’ve learned a few tricks which I’m happy to share with you.
Next time you’re having a panic attack, put your head between your legs and breathe.
You can also try breathing into a paper bag over and over again.
Wonder why you benefit from breathing when you’re having a panic attack?
It’s the scientific way to trick your body into thinking that things are safe.
When you take deep breaths, you increase the flow of oxygen to your brain and stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system.
Though panic attacks are profound and uncomfortable, I have learned to accept that they are a part of life.
Now that I better understand my panic attack triggers, I am better at recognizing the early warning signs from my body.
If you are suffering from panic attacks frequently, I highly recommend that you get help from a professional therapist. As a licensed mental health professional, I can tell you that this condition is treatable and you will feel better.
I am deeply indebted to my therapist for helping me navigate the turbulent landscape of my own anxiety and panic.
Going to psychotherapy has helped me be the captain in charge of my body. I’ve learned effective ways to regulate my nervous system and counter the highs and lows that sometimes occur.
If you’re having panic attacks out of the blue, try not to forecast into the future and agonize that you will suffer from them indefinitely.
Sometimes panic attacks occur due to high levels of situational stress and anxiety. This is also treatable so ask for help from a trusted friend or loved one.
If you suffer from panic attacks, what tricks have helped you get over them quickly? What works well to stop panic attacks fast? What do you find less helpful? Please share your stories and comments below.