Panic attacks can be triggered by many different things, including your own thoughts. Because they are so intense, it may seem like there’s nothing you can do about it, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, you have the power to control and even eliminate the attacks.
If you feel a panic attack coming, you want to remind yourself that panic attacks can be uncomfortable, but they are not dangerous at all. When you feel a panic attack coming, don’t fight your symptoms (it creates further anxiety). Instead, focus on something else, such as your environment, and know that you are in control.
Keep reading to find out how panic attacks work, five things you can do when you notice the first symptoms, how to change your lifestyle, and what the most effective treatment for panic is.
How panic attacks work
Panic attacks can be defined as episodes of sudden and extreme anxiety. If you have ever experienced one yourself, you know what they feel like: you think you are about to faint or even die, your heart beats faster, you may be shaking, and you may have trouble concentrating.
Although some symptoms are more common than others, every panic attack can feel different. Different people will experience different thoughts and sensations, but also and most importantly, your second attack may feel different than the first one; your fifth attack may be more intense that the fourth one; and so on.
Symptoms of panic can essentially be divided in two categories: physical (the sensations in your body, such as your body temperature) and mental (your thoughts, such as the fear of going crazy). Here is a table that lists the most common ones.
|Physical symptoms||Psychological Symptoms|
|Racing heart||Intense anxiety|
|Dizziness||Fear of dying|
|Shaking||Fear of going insane|
|Upset stomach||Fear of fainting|
|Shortness of breath||Disorientation, confusion|
|Cold hands and/or feet|
|Hot flashes or chills|
Besides feeling horrible, panic attacks can give you the impression that you have developed some kind of rare disease. And even when you realize that it’s nothing but a mental health disorder, you may still think that there’s no way you can heal.
Because the attacks are so intense, and because it seems like they happen to you randomly, you may fall into the trap of thinking that you will have to experience them for the rest of your life, and that there’s no way to get rid of them (that’s what I thought years ago).
The good news is that although panic attacks feel horrible, they are relatively easy to treat. The first and most important step to get rid of them is to simply be aware of how they work, and it’s quite simple.
First, there is a trigger that increases your anxiety or changes your physical sensations: this could be anything from a sudden posture change to watching a scary movie. Then, you will notice unusual symptoms, such as a rapid heartbeat or cold extremities.
Then, especially during the first attacks, you will overreact to such symptoms, and that’s where it all turns into a nasty vicious cycle. The trigger is what causes the first mental and physical changes, but then it’s a series of reactions that are mainly caused by your own thoughts.
Once you understand that panic is nothing more than sudden anxiety, and that the actual attacks are usually caused by your own overreaction, you will have the power to reduce the symptoms, and gradually get rid of the attacks for good — without medication.
Some people will be able to eliminate the attacks immediately, while for others, especially those whose lifestyle is too stressful (more on this later) it may take a little bit longer. But what you need to understand is that panic can be cured. It is possible.
What to do if you feel a panic attack coming
Alright, so here’s five things you can do if you feel a panic attack coming, in order of importance (though all these steps are key, and I encourage you to read them carefully).
1. Use this key affirmation
There are many affirmations you can use during a panic attack, however there is one that is particularly useful. You can think of it as a reminder that you can repeat to yourself until your mind is calmer. It is: this may be uncomfortable, but it’s not dangerous.
As we’ve seen, you may not be able to control what triggers the attacks, such as your environment, but you will always be able to control your own reaction to the thoughts/symptoms.
If you think the attacks are dangerous (most people do, including myself years ago) then your anxiety will get ten times worse, and that’s when the attack becomes overwhelming. Conversely, if you remind yourself that this may be uncomfortable, but it’s not dangerous, there’s nothing to be afraid of anymore.
2. Realize you are in control
The second thing you need to realize whenever you feel a panic attack coming, is that you are in control. Seriously. It may seem like panic attacks just happen to you randomly, and that you are powerless, but the truth is that you do have control over your thoughts and feelings.
Remember: panic is essentially a vicious cycle (have a look at the picture above until you understand how it works). If you don’t overreact to your own symptoms, you have the power to break the vicious cycle. You will still experience the trigger and the first symptoms (for instance, an anxious thought), but you won’t experience the actual attack.
3. Focus on something else
I get it: right before an attack, or during an attack, it’s difficult to focus on anything else. But it’s definitely not impossible. And sometimes all it takes to stop the attack is to concentrate on something you can see or hear in your environment.
For example, you can use the 3 3 3 rule, where you name three things you can see, then name three things you can hear, and then move three different parts of your body (such as your back, the palm of your hands, and your neck). This shifts your focus from your own anxious thoughts to the external world, thus calming your mind instantly.
4. Don’t fight your symptoms
The worst thing you can do when you notice the first symptoms of an attack is to create further stress and anxiety. So if you fight your symptoms, or if you try to suppress them completely, it actually works against you because it creates tension.
Instead, you want to embrace your symptoms, whether it’s a rapid heartbeat or cold hands, and let them wash over you, like waves, or the wind. When you don’t fight the symptoms, you don’t create unnecessary anxiety, and that helps you break free from the vicious cycle of panic.
5. If possible, don’t hide
When you experience panic, your natural reaction may be to go and hide somewhere, because you think it would be too embarrassing to have an attack in a public place. Or, you may go back to your house, or your room, because you would feel safer there.
Again, this is a natural reaction. However, it’s crucial that you learn not to do this. You want to reinforce the thought that panic is not dangerous, and you also want to gradually expose yourself to the environment or situation in which you are more likely to experience panic.
For instance, if you are far away from home, and that causes you anxiety, and you know the anxiety may trigger panic — resist the temptation to go back home, and use the affirmation mentioned in the first paragraph (this may be uncomfortable, but it’s not dangerous). You can have a look at a list of thirty common panic triggers so you can identify them and learn not to overreact.
What panic is telling you
Are you too stressed? Are you living someone else’s life? Do you have unrealistic expectations? Are you being too hard on yourself? Are you chasing something that doesn’t make you happy?
Most of the time, panic is that inner voice telling you to stop, and change your life. A lot of people experienced their first panic attack when they were overworked, pushing themselves, and neglecting their physical and mental health. I certainly was when I went through this.
Or, it could be that you are experiencing an emotional crisis after a very stressful event, such as a breakup, or the loss of a loved one. But regardless of the exact cause, the common factor seems to be stress. Let’s have a look at some lifestyle changes you should implement right now, so you can put yourself first, reduce anxiety and take care of your body and mind.
Lifestyle changes for panic attacks
First of all, eliminate all stimulants. All.
Stimulants such as coffee are bad enough for most people, but if you tend to be anxious, that’s a no-no. Why in the world would you want to increase alertness, if you’re too alert already? Why put further stress on your mind?
The second thing you want to do is schedule some me time, ideally every single day. In today’s world, most of us are very busy, to the point where it’s easy to forget about ourselves. But when it comes to health — particularly mental health — it’s vital to put yourself first.
If you find it hard to schedule some free time for yourself, try to choose a time of the day (for example, right after you have dinner) and stick to it. Once it becomes a habit, it’ll be much easier. Remember, by doing this, you are not being selfish: you are taking care of your health.
It’s also very important that you don’t neglect your body: sleep at least eight hours per night, and watch your diet. Make sure you are eating enough (an insufficient amount of calories can make you feel tired or even dizzy), and enough nutrients; avoid or eliminate harmful foods, so your body is in peak condition; make sure you are hydrated; and avoid drinking too much alcohol.
Lastly, make sure you exercise. It has tremendous benefits in terms of mental clarity, happiness, sleep quality, and overall health. If you exercise sporadically, consider increasing the frequency of your workouts.
What is the most effective treatment for panic disorder?
If you have experienced panic attacks many times, and you are worried you may experience more in the future, the thought of taking a pill that suppresses your symptoms could be comforting, but we now know that antidepressants or tranquillizers are not the best solution.
As a quick note: medication may be needed in some rare cases, so do check with an experienced therapist, but you also need to realize that when you suffer from panic you automatically think that you belong to one of those rare or extreme cases — simply because panic feels so horrible — but more often than not, you won’t need any medication.
Research has shown that CBT, or cognitive behavioral therapy, is currently the most effective treatment for panic disorders. Not only that, it’s also way more effective than medication, and it has zero side effects.
When you work with a therapist that specializes in, or understands, cognitive behavioral therapy, you will learn what panic really is, and how your own thoughts can help you break free from the vicious cycle shown in the picture above.
In fact, I discovered what the vicious cycle of panic was thanks to a therapist. And although I did change my lifestyle and learned to manage stress better, I still believe that talking to a therapist was the most effective and overall best way to get rid of panic forever.
If you suffer from panic (or any other mental health issue, really) and you are thinking about talking to a therapist — go for it. No matter how intelligent or resourceful you are, you shouldn’t try to solve all your problems yourself.
It’s great that you are taking the time to read this article, and it may even be enough for you to heal. But I still encourage you to see an experienced therapist and let them guide you. As I mentioned earlier, panic is usually easy to treat, and you may only need two or three sessions.
Thank you for reading this post! What’s your favorite tip or advice when dealing with panic attacks? Let me know by leaving a comment 👇