How to stop an anxiety attack (panic attack) in its tracks

Category: Better Moods | Author and Publisher: Elly Prior | First published: 02-05-2019  | Modified: 02-05-2019

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Are panic attacks treatable? And can they be cured?

I suspect you've landed here because you’re terrified of doing anything or going anywhere in case you have a panic attack. 

I totally understand how very frightening anxiety attacks can be. So I want to reassure you right away: panic attacks are common, can happen to anybody and are not a sign that you're going mad.

  • Can you die from a panic attack? NO, panic attacks are not fatal. Read on to find out why they won’t kill you.
  • Can you faint during a panic attack? NO, and you can find out further down why you won't faint.
  • Can they cause shortness of breath? YES, but only due to the way you start breathing during an attack. Read on to discover how to treat this symptom.
  • Can panic attacks be cured? YES, very likely. My self-help strategies below will get you started on the road to recovery.
  • Are panic attacks treatable? YES, read on...

As a registered (licensed) therapist with 24 years’ experience, I’ve treated many people who suffered with anxiety and panic attacks. I know what's likely to work and what won't.

But ultimately, you are the expert on you, here. That means you’ll be able to figure out which strategies are most likely to work for you.

Here's what you'll get in this article

  • A simple 2 or 3 step strategy to stop the anxiety attacks, even when an attack has already kicked in.
  • Learning points to help reduce your anticipatory anxiety (your fear of having another panic or anxiety attack).
  • Strategies to prevent attacks from happening in the future.

It's really important that you also read my articles on anxiety for no reason, signs and symptoms of a nervous breakdown and how to recover from a mental breakdown! These articles will help you to put these sudden and severe onslaughts on your peace of mind into context.

Why do panic attacks happen? Why are they so random? And why do they seem to happen for no reason?

When you experienced your first period of high anxiety, or your first anxiety attack, your brain registered the environment around you. It made a note of things like smells, tastes, sights, sounds and touch.

Normally, all that kind of information would be stored in separate places in your brain. However, because the information was gathered during a time of high anxiety, your brain has neatly filed it all together in one place. Your brain identified potential danger, so it stored the information in a way that can be made available to you again within a split second. 

Your brain uses that information to warn you, even ahead of time, of 'impending danger'. It prepares you for fight or flight without you having any idea that it’s happening. Should you be anywhere near a situation remotely similar to that of the original anxiety episode, your brain knows how to instruct the rest of your body to keep you safe.

For example, if your panic attack took place in train station A, you need not be surprised if it also happens in train station B. If it happened in the lift in a shopping centre, it may also happen in any other lift you take. If there's someone standing close to you wearing a particular perfume whilst you had a panic attack that same perfume on someone else could trigger a panic attack somewhere else. And so the anxiety spreads.

That’s why it might seem as though your attacks happen out of nowhere, but in reality they generally all have an identifiable origin. You might have thought you were starting to get attacks in new places. But, to your brain, the place wasn't new at all. It recognised a familiar smell, sight or sound which you then experience as that horrible feeling of anxiety. That is, in a scientific sense, the beauty of the whole process: had you really been in danger, your brain would have ensured you'd get out in time.

But for the most part, the danger your brain anticipates isn’t life-threatening. And your brain’s overreaction is simply leading to your developing a more generalised fear of activities and situations, and potentially even agoraphobia. You might even have started to wonder if you’re going mad.

So let me reassure you right away: you are not going crazy! And I hope the above has helped you to understand that your symptoms aren't random at all.

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Can anxiety attacks damage your heart?

I’m not surprised if your anxiety attacks are causing you to worry about having a heart attack. 

During a panic attack, your heart does what’s expected of it under the circumstances. It's under the direction of your brain which is convinced you’re in a life-threatening situation. Your heart is instructed to speed up to pump extra blood through your body to provide your major muscle groups (legs and arms) with extra nutrients. 

Any chest pain that you experience during a panic attack is most likely to be the result of overbreathing. Your chest muscles tighten up as you try to catch your breath, tire and cause you pain as a result.

An anxiety attack itself cannot damage your heart. However, I trust you will have seen your physician.

Can you pass out when you can't breath?

During a panic attack you’ll struggle to catch your breath and you might become dizzy. But you won't faint. People faint when their blood pressure drops. Your blood pressure is far more likely to rise during an anxiety attack.

Why you won't choke or faint

Your body-mind always automatically adjusts any external and internal changes. So, the moment it perceives a danger in the environment, real or imagined, it ensures you're prepared to tackle whatever comes your way. Therefore, you don’t need to feel, as some people do, that you’re a freak and that your body’s letting you down.

Remind yourself often: your body and mind are responding normally to what they perceive as abnormal circumstances. You are healthy and safe.

I'd like you to practise the following breathing exercise several times a day. Learning how to control your breathing in a safe environment means it’ll be much easier to keep calmer when you  feel a panic attack coming on.

Your 3-step calm breathing plan

  1. Start by breathing out fully through an open mouth, by pulling your belly in and pushing the air out of your lungs. Keep your shoulders relaxed for step 2. (The shortness of breath is a result of overbreathing when you don't take the time to breath out completely.)
  2. Breathe in as slowly as you can - preferably through your nose - and breathe out fully as per #1. That will bring some relief right away as it allows you to catch your breath again.
  3. Now start counting the length of your inbreaths and work towards doubling the length of your outbreaths. The counting will help you to focus on something other than your sense of panic.

Losing touch with reality?

This symptom is simply due to the reduced blood flow to your brain on account of shallow breathing. Blood carries oxygen and nutrients which your brain needs to function optimally.

Your doctor may talk to you about depersonalisation and derealisation.

You may be telling yourself that you're going crazy.

I am telling you that it's a 'normal' symptom of a panic or anxiety attack. Rephrame this symptom as your brain disconnecting you from the full impact of the feared situation.

Here's the way to stop it...

Your plan of action

  1. See, feel, hear. Focus on one thing at a time and name what you see around you. Grab hold of anything, feel it and note its texture and temperature. Put words to these attributes. Focus on one sound at a time near to you and name it.
  2. Breathe out fully, and slowly breathe in (see the 3-step calm breathing plan).
  3. 'Simply' (yes, I truly understand, there's nothing simple about it for you!) wait for it to pass, as it will pass.

Can you die from a panic attack?

Will panic attacks kill you? No, they won't.

Yet, you're probably worried that you're very ill and that you could die at any moment, anywhere. I totally get that when you're having such strange and often severe symptoms.

If you happened to have had a traumatic near-death experience, such as for example in a road traffic collision, then your present panic attacks and fear of dying are almost certainly connected with the original trauma. You're likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress symptoms.

Regardless of the origins of your fears, chances are people close to you are unlikely to understand or take your fear of dying seriously.

Your doctor, though, should understand. He/she may want to prescribe anti-anxiety and/or antidepressant medication.

Know that medication is not going to cure you, but may be helpful in the short-term. Unfortunately, they can also make matters worse, so be sure to inform yourself. It's up to you of course to discuss with your doctor.

Your plan of action

  1. Be sure to get a medical checkup to rule out any underlying medical conditions.
  2. Learn about other people's experiences - read their forum posts and take comfort from the fact that they haven't succumbed to their anxiety attacks.
  3. Accept that when you’re in the grip of a panic attack you’re probably going to carry on feeling as though you’re about to die. Although it’s an awful thing to feel, know that it will subside. Further down you'll learn how to stop the attacks once they've started.

Why a panic attack won't kill you

When you're in the middle of what's called a flight/flight/freeze reaction, the logical part of your brain is cut out.

Trying to calculate your best mode of escape in a life-threatening situation takes too much time. So, your brain bypasses that route and instead goes for a black or white option - do or die. This means that talking logic is as effective as filling a bottle with a hole in the bottom of it.

You’ve learnt now why your heart is racing and why you can’t catch your breath. You'll hopefully understand that these are temporary physical reactions to a perceived threat and that you'll live another day!

Can panic attacks be cured?

Yes, they can! But, you'll have to work on it!

Your anxiety attacks are causing you to feel jumpy, easily startled and on edge all the time in case another attack strikes.

Therefore, we're going to work on your fear of further panic attacks. That's a really important part of your recovery.

Why so?

Because that fear adds yet another layer to your suffering, and in many cases simply perpetuates the cycle of attacks.

How to stop panic attacks reoccuring

The following is a really challenging exercise, I know.

Ideally I’d want you to work through it with a CBT therapist, or at the very least discuss it with an online licensed therapist (link opens in a new tab).

However, you may not be able to or not have access to therapy for any other reason.

So, here's the plan: you're going to have to put your brave shoes on and become determined to get rid of the attacks once and for all by yourself!

Commit to your recovery, and don’t let any setbacks or wobbles throw you off course.

Your 3-step action plan

  1. Really familiarise yourself with all the strategies I've discussed here first, particularly the breathing exercise.
  2. Be sure you’ve practised those coping strategies so that they’ve become second nature.
  3. Enlist the help of a friend who is willing to follow your instructions (and who doesn’t suffer from anxiety).

Repeat visits to the places you experienced a panic attack

That sounds scary, doesn't it?

So, why would I want you to do that? Read on...

Here's how you can stop panic attacks from happening:

Your plan of action

  1. Prepare yourself.
    Ask a friend to come along, or take a book so that you can simply sit somewhere and pretend to read. Take a bottle of water too in case you get thirsty or a dry mouth.
  2. Start with one of the places
    that causes you a lower amount of anxiety. Use all your strategies to calm yourself on the way there and when you've arrived. Settle yourself somewhere whilst you still feel somewhat anxious. Know that the feeling will pass. Keep using your calming strategies.
  3. Stay there and wait until you've calmed down. 

The last step is really important!

Previously, during an attack, you probably fled the scene at a high state of anxiety. But now, I want you to experience that anxiety and feel it subside, which it will even when you stay where you are!

You have to give your brain time to discover that in fact it is safe there (assuming that you're not in a place infested with alligators or gun-toting drug dealers).

Since you leave in a somewhat calmer state (the pattern in your brain is updated), your next visit to this place is likely to be a little less challenging.

As you repeat the process again and again, each time you do it, it'll be a little less stressful. Until finally you can go to all of those places without batting an eyelid :-)

More ways to prevent anxiety attacks from happening - special situations

Any of the following can potentially undermine your courageous efforts, so at the very least, do take the suggested action:

5 ways to help stop anxiety attacks happening again

  1. Suffering the following conditions?
    See Dr Kelly Brogan's site (link opens in a new tab) for information on the following medications: painkillers, corticosteroids, and medication for conditions including ADHD, seizures, thyroid conditions, Parkinson’s and asthma. All these can cause anxiety as a side effect. But that doesn’t mean you can’t manage the level of anxiety you experience - the strategies in this article will all still be helpful for you.
  2. Taking medication?
    If you are taking any medication at all, ask your doctor to review them, incl. your dosage. If you're taking anti-anxiety medications and/or antidepressants, talk to your doctor about potentially reducing the dose with a view to eventually coming off them altogether. 
  3. Drinking too much alcohol?
    If you're having trouble with that, consider using self-hypnosis with the aid of an hypnosis download, such as 'Moderate your alcohol intake'. See my article Hypnosis downloads FAQ.
  4. Suffering from drug addiction?
    Now is the time to ask for help as your panic attacks won't stop until you're able to stop the addiction.
  5. Suffering from a phobia?
    I recommend talking to a (online) therapist who can help you get over that. If that's not an option for you, consider using self-hypnosis instead.

When else can panic attacks happen?

As I've mentioned before anxiety attacks can happen wherever and whenever your brain perceives a similar situation to that which provoked your first panic episode. 

However, you may have landed here with a more specific question in mind about when and how panic attacks are triggered. So, here are some other examples of when they can happen and what you can do to deal with them:

When you're pregnant
Ask for help from your doctor, midwife or other healthcare provider. The attacks won't directly harm your baby, but it is important that you feel as peaceful as possible. In particular, I want you to be able look forward to the actual birth of your baby.

Before your period
Speak to your healthcare provider. The problem could be hormonal.

During the menopause
Anxiety is a common symptom of the menopause, and can, unfortunately, lead to panic attacks.

During sleep
Yes, some people suffer from them in the night. Calm yourself with the breathing exercises described earlier. Consider taking a natural remedy. Don't expect to go back to sleep, but don't watch your mobile to entertain yourself. Instead, why not try listening to an audio book/story or some calming music?

When you're suffering from PTSD
This is a big topic in its own right, so have a look at my article on PTSD symptoms.

While you're driving
Panic attacks in the car happen for the same reasons as all anxiety attacks.

You're likely to have been highly anxious once while you were driving, which provoked an attack the following time you found yourself in a similar situation.

To deal with these kinds of attacks, revisit the area by getting as close as is safely possible, and follow the steps in the action plan above until you’re able to restore a feeling of calm.

Finally

I really hope the information here on panic attacks has helped you to understand their causes. And I hope that by learning about your body’s automatic reactions I’ve managed to reassure you that you’re not going crazy.

I'd really like you to commit yourself to the steps set out in this article. In addition be kind to yourself, give yourself time and really work hard.

I know you can make those attacks a thing of the past. You don’t have to be held hostage by anxiety anymore. I know you can do it, I'm rooting for you. :-)

Please, rate this article ...

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Thank you so much in anticipation. :-)

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