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Strategies for Getting Through a Panic Attack

Tips for Coping with Panic Attacks

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Updated May 28, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

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Getting through a panic attack

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If you suffer from panic attacks, then you've been there before. You experience difficulty breathing, rapid heart rate, muscle tension, and dizziness. These physical sensations are often accompanied by negative and frightening thoughts. You may fear losing control of yourself and quite possibly your sanity.

Despite these overwhelming feelings, there are ways you can regain a sense of control when panic strikes. Below are some simple tips you can use to help ease common symptoms of a panic attack.

Take a Breath

Panic attacks can literally feel like they are taking your breath away. You may feel like you are hyperventilating, choking, or experiencing shortness of breath. Managing your changes in breathing can be the key to reducing panic symptoms. During an attack, try to bring your attention to your breath.

Now that you have become aware of your breath, begin to direct it. Start by breathing slowly and purposely. This will counteract the shallow breathing characterized by most attacks. If possible, place your hands on your stomach and fill your belly with breath. When you inhale, you will feel your center rise and expand. As your exhale, it will then contract inward. These deliberate breaths will assist in soothing your body and mind.

It may also be helpful to count each breath. Such as counting your first full breath in and out as one, the next breath in and out as two, and so on. This will not only help you breathe better, but it will also help you feel calmer by distracting your mind.

Loosen Up

When panic sets in, you may notice pain, numbness, and overall tensions throughout your body. By spending a few moments trying to relax your body, you can start to improve some of your physical discomfort. Letting go of this strain will also help relieve your anxious thoughts.

Work your way up your entire arm, tightening and loosening each set of muscles, moving from the forearm up to the shoulder. Then switch to the left side. Do the same for your legs, starting with your right foot.

Continue to focus on separate muscle groups, including your back and shoulders, until you have worked your way all the way up to the top of your head. Don't forget to relax your facial muscles, as there is often a lot of tension held there. Try to soften your forehead, relax your jaw, and ease your neck.

Change Your Mind

Even when in full-blown panic mode, you may logically recognize that your fears are exceeding what it warranted by the situation. Despite wanting the panic to stop, your thoughts may be keeping you from feeling calm. When faced with negative thoughts associated with a panic attack, try to distract your mind and refocus.

As the panic attack takes its course, divert your attention to more pleasant thoughts. Instead of fearing the situation you are in, try thinking about the positive aspects of your life, such as a loved one, a beloved pet, or a favorite leisure activity. It may be helpful to think about something that makes you laugh or to visualize a tranquil scene. You can try to think of a funny joke or imagine a beautiful sunset. Affirm more positive statements to yourself. For example, repeat to yourself, "I am okay," "I am safe," or "This will pass." Over time your negative thinking pattern will begin to give way to more encouraging views.

Confront Panic

One of the most effective ways to start managing panic attacks is to persistently face your fears. If your attacks are situational, such as being in crowds, try not to avoid these situations. Such exposure will help you to work through panic and will send the message to your fears that you are ultimately in control of them.

If your panic attacks are unpredictable, meaning that no particular triggers bring them on, you will also need to tackle the panic as it comes. Remember that by becoming self- aware during a panic attack, even when it comes on unexpectedly, can help you cope with its symptoms. Remain aware of how you're feeling and remind yourself that it will not overtake you.

Follow Treatment Recommendations

Your physician or health care provider may recommend medication to help treat your panic attacks. Anti-anxiety medications, known as benzodiazepines, can provide fast relief for panic symptoms. Frequently prescribed benzodiazepines include Xanax (Alprazolam), Ativan (Lorazepam), Valium (Diazepam), and Klonopin (Clonazepam). Such medications can be taken for immediate relief or shortly before a panic-inducing situation, such as prior to boarding an airplane. Benzodiazepines are generally prescribed during the initial treatment phase as a short-term remedy for panic attacks.

Antidepressants, such as Prozac (Fluoxetine), and Zoloft (Sertraline), are a commonly prescribed type of medication used in more long-term prevention of panic attacks. These medications are often taken daily to help alleviate one's overall feelings of anxiety. Over time, the strength and duration of panic attacks will be weakened. Since antidepressants can take several weeks to be effective, it is important to take them consistently to improve your symptoms.

Next time you are met with a panic attack, apply these techniques so that you can begin to regain some control. Keep in mind that these strategies won't work every time or for everyone, but try them out and see what helps you. These skills will be most effective if you practice them when you are not in a state of panic. By rehearsing them, they will become easier to use and will be more ingrained in your memory for when you will need them the most. You may also want to write them down and keep them with you, so that you have them during panic-inducing situations.

With patience, perseverance, and consistency, your panic attacks can be managed. You are most likely much braver than you think you are. Over time, you may begin to recognize your own courage as you continue to conquer panic attacks.

Source:

Bourne, Edmund J. The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook, 4th ed. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger, 2005.

Silverman, Harold M. The Pill Book. 14th ed. New York, NY: Bantam Books, 2010.

 

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