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What To Do During a Panic Attack and How To Regain Control

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There is no way to switch-off a panic attack but there are steps you can take to lessen their impact and regain control. The methods outlined below directly address cause & effect and are easy to incorporate even when you’re feeling overwhelmed and awash.  

Belly Breathing

The easiest and most effective thing you can do is a simple belly breathing routine (also known as diaphragmatic breathing.) Panic attacks trigger an increased rate of breathing which directly leads to the worst of the associated symptoms: increased heart rate, shortness of breath, body tightness. Via belly breathing you create seperation allowing your lungs to fully expand and fill with air. The increased oxygen sends a message to your brain that the threat has passed. Normalization and nervous system balance is a gradual shift but you will feel better with each breath. 

Here’s how to do it: 

  1. Close your mouth and breathe in slowly through your nostrils. 
  2. Visualize your belly filling with air as you inhale deeply, pushing your belly outwards.
  3. Exhale slowly through parted lips. 
  4. Repeat 

Each inhale and exhale should last a minimum of 3-5 seconds. You want to limit yourself to a maximum of 18 inhales/exhales per minute. Focus on the routine and keep breathing until the panic attack passes. 

Work with Your Body

Identify, and relax, the parts of your body that get most tense during a panic attack. This typically involves first tensing, and then relaxing, the muscles of your jaw, neck, shoulders, back and legs. The practice is known as Progressive Muscle Relaxation and it is a proven stress reducer. 

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Work through the muscle groups in one direction. Some experts say head to toes, others say toes to head; go with whichever feels more comfortable.
  2. Breathe in and tense the first muscle group (toes scrunched with feet pointing away from your body.) Hold for 5-10 seconds—firmly but not painfully.
  3. Release and exhale. Do it quickly. You’re not letting the tension dissipate. You’re tossing it aside.
  4. Relax for 15-20 seconds, shake it off, then move on to the next muscle group.
  5. When you’ve finished with the routine take full minute to refocus on your belly breathing.  

Get Involved in the Present

Panic attacks are rarely triggered by in-the-moment stress, more often, they are triggered by concerns about an imagined future or the unchangeable past. As author Raheel Farouq says, “The greatest fear in life is not of death but of unsolicited change.” 

Re-engaging with the present is the best way to push aside what-if and wish I had. You can take a macro or micro approach to this, whichever feels more comfortable. 

Macro: Get back into the activity you were engaged in prior to the attack. Get involved with the people and objects around you. If you're in a store, resume shopping, reading labels, comparing prices, asking questions, etc. It will move you closer to your goal of overcoming anxiety when you bring your focus and energy back to the present environment. 

Micro: If the present environment is exacerbating your feelings of panic and disorientation, shrink it down by using tactile sensation to focus your attention. Gently rub a piece of fabric between your fingers, squeeze your toes inside your shoes, touch the tips of your fingers to the tips of your thumbs; concentrate on simple actions, simple sensations and turn the rush and worry around you into white noise. 

Talk to Yourself

Talk to yourself (silently) about what’s happening, and what you need to do. Remind yourself that what you’re feeling is discomfort not danger. Remind yourself that panic attacks are temporary, most lasting less than ten minutes. If the panic attack talks back, you know what to say:

  1. “I’m scared but you don’t scare me!”
  2. “Fine, let's have an attack! I need to practice my coping techniques anyway!”
  3. “Everyone has what-ifs, everyone has wish I hads and none of them are real. But, I am! And so is today!"

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Kava Root Extract for Panic Attacks

It might be a good idea to keep an over the counter anxiety medication like kava to calm you down in case you have a panic attack. Kava is an all-natural stress and anxiety reducer. It promotes calmness, relaxation, and a sense of well-being via chemical compounds known as kavalactones that bind with various receptors in the brain. Unlike benzodiazepines, it doesn't create physical dependence and has few side-effects.

Traditional preparation takes time but high-quality kava extracts like 1Hour Break® are designed to be easily portable. Keep a bottle in your pocket or purse and use it in conjunction with the suggestions above should a panic attack strike. 

When a panic attack strikes don’t allow yourself to feel guilty or overwhelmed. Instead, accept the difficulty and work to reduce its severity using the methods outlined above. Regain control over your breathing. Reconnect with the present moment. Take a strong mental stance. You can’t switch off a panic attack but you can downgrade it to a manageable wave that will inevitably pass.

Photo by Bruno Aguirre

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About the Author

Allison Lardizabal, RN

Allison Lardizabal, RN

As an ER nurse, I helped people through some of their most difficult and vulnerable times in their lives, providing me invaluable insight on what really matters most. This led me on another path where I stepped away from my clinical practice to pursue other dreams; to live life on my own terms; and be more intentional with my time.

More posts by Allison Lardizabal, RN >
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