Self-Help Tips To Manage An Acute Panic Attack

Maggie Morrow, counselling, CBT therapy, life coach and psychotherapist London. MSc Integrative Psychotherapy, BSc Psychology, Adv Dip, UKCP.
Author: Maggie Morrow, Award Winning Psychotherapist, Counsellor & Life Coach
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A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear and anxiety accompanied by physical symptoms like a racing heartbeat, sweating, shaking and more. Most panic attacks last anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes, and while the symptoms can make people worry that they’re having a heart attack, it’s important to note that what you’re feeling during a panic attack won’t cause a heart attack.

Though common, panic attacks can be incredibly scary in the moment, but the good news is that they are not dangerous, despite how overwhelming they feel. Understanding your fear and using simple self-help techniques can help you better manage your symptoms during a panic attack. We’ve compiled several tips to get you through an acute panic attack and bring your anxiety back down when panic strikes.

Self-Help Tips To Manage An Acute Panic Attack

Focus on breathing

When you feel a panic attack coming on, try to turn your attention to taking slow, deep breaths. Inhale for a count of 4, hold for 2 then exhale for a count of 6. Place one hand on your stomach and focus on taking belly breaths rather than short, shallow chest breaths. Deep breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system which promotes relaxation and can help calm your anxiety during a panic attack.

Practice CBT grounding techniques

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) offers several approaches for managing anxiety. The first is to recognise negative thoughts and replace them. For example, a panic attack may be triggered by a certain thought process or how you perceive yourself. By recognising those thought patterns and how it influences your mental health, you can then redirect your negative thoughts and replace them with more positive views.

CBT also teaches you healthy coping strategies to manage your anxiety, such as progressive muscle relaxation which involves alternating between tensing and relaxing different muscle groups throughout the body. These mental exercises force you to concentrate on something logical rather than the panic. Distraction techniques help to interrupt the brain’s panic response, calming an attack by redirecting your thoughts.

Go for a short walk

Getting outside if you’re able can really help you manage your panic attacks. A brief bit of fresh air and exercise releases endorphins and distracts the mind. Walk around the block or even up and down a hallway if you can’t go outside.

Use grounding techniques

Engaging your senses forces you to focus on the present moment instead of the anxious stories in your head, which can help to bring your heart rate down and steady your breathing. Notice details surrounding you such as the colour of the walls, the sound of traffic outside, the feeling of your feet on the floor or the texture of your clothes. Try to describe five things you can see, four things you can hear and 3 things you can feel.

Practice mindfulness

Practicing mindfulness means observing your thoughts and allowing them to pass by without judgement. In this case, it means observing your anxiety and the sensations in your body and accepting them without criticism. Notice any areas of tension in your body, such as a tight jaw or clenched fists, and consciously relax each body part as you notice it. Quietly observing your situation puts distance between you and your anxiety, which can calm racing thoughts and allows your panic attack to pass.

Panic Button

Splash cold water on your face

Anything that provides a shocking sensation can jolt you out of anxious thoughts, whether that’s splashing your face with cold water or holding an ice cube. The mild discomfort also gives your brain something immediate to focus on rather than the panic, which again redirects your thought processes and brings you out of the cycle of negative thoughts.

Call a friend or loved one

Hearing the voice of someone who cares about you and can offer support is deeply comforting when you’re feeling panicked. Talking about your anxiety out loud can make it feel less intense, and they may be able to offer a fresh perspective on your fears to help minimise them in your mind.

Challenge your anxious thoughts

Panic causes our mind to go into a spin of worst-case scenarios, and it’s a spiral that can be hard to get out of when you’re in the middle of a panic attack. But try to challenge your negative thoughts by reminding yourself that you’ve overcome these attacks in the past and you’ll do so again. The fear and dread you’re experiencing in the moment is only temporary, and self-talk such as “I can handle this” or “My anxiety can’t hurt me” can help to remind you of what you’re capable of.

While these tools can help you get through an acute attack, speaking to a doctor or therapist is recommended for long-term management if your panic attacks are frequent or interfering with your daily life. There are many effective treatments available, whether that’s medication, counselling or a combination of treatments. Contact us today to book an appointment or make an enquiry.

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Maggie Morrow, counselling, CBT therapy, life coach and psychotherapist London. MSc Integrative Psychotherapy, BSc Psychology, Adv Dip, UKCP.

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