Managing Panic Attacks

Alina Gallupe-Barry, LMHC

Have you ever felt so scared or panicked that you were suddenly sweating, struggling to catch your breath, and nauseous? Maybe you had to grip onto something as your surroundings started to spin. Maybe you even felt like the room was suddenly 20 degrees warmer and your heart was pounding out of your chest. If so, you have probably experienced a panic attack.

A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear that includes both mental and physical symptoms. Anyone who suffers from panic attacks can tell you how scary they are. The physical symptoms of a panic attack are often severe and the associated panic may make you feel like you’re dying. Despite this feeling, panic attacks are not life-threatening. In fact, most panic attacks are over in a matter of minutes, even though it might have felt longer in the moment.

If you suffer from panic attacks there are ways to help shorten and even prevent attacks all together. It takes some practice and may even take some trial and error to discover which methods work best for you. Working with a therapist can also help this process as it increases your access to support and ideas.

In this list you will find several options that you can try to help manage your panic attacks but this is not an exhaustive list. Every person is different and you might need to customize these methods to work well for you or even pair them together for maximum effect.

1. Grounding yourself with ice

When you first feel a panic attack coming on, the best method to try first is grounding. Grounding is a technique that helps a person manage their strong emotions typically by activating your senses. In the case of panic, holding onto an ice pack or an ice cube quickly draws us into the sensation of the cold object which can snap us out of the panic attack.

If you do not have ice handy, running your hands under cold water or splashing cold water on your face can also have a similar effect. Going outdoors in cold weather for a short amount of time can also be grounding for some people.

2. Calming your breathing

Shortness of breath or shallow breathing is one of the most common symptoms of a panic attack. By taking the time to do an effective breathing exercise we can slow our body down and regain a sense of calm. 

Breathing techniques are most effective when we pull the air down into our stomach instead of only using our chest to breathe. This “belly breathing” helps deepen our breath to get that calming effect we are looking for. 

An easy breathing exercise is to count to five while inhaling, hold your breath for a second, and then count to seven while exhaling. Repeat this pattern until you start to feel your body relaxing. It may take up to 5 minutes to fully relax.

3. Progressive Muscle Relaxation

When we are having a panic attack, our bodies are in fight or flight mode. This is an evolutionary process that keeps us safe by readying us for danger. Unfortunately, we don’t often need to physically fight or flee from danger anymore so this process goes haywire when it doesn’t get that release that it’s looking for. To trick your body into thinking that you did just escape from danger you can activate your muscles which will help turn off this fight or flight mode. 

Progressive Muscle Relaxation is a method of squeezing your muscles and releasing them to create a sense of calm and relaxation. Start with one muscle group such as your legs, tense your leg muscles for 5 to 7 seconds then let them go limp. Next move to your core muscles and repeat the process of holding your muscles as tight as possible for several seconds and then let them go. Do this with your arms next and finally your face muscles. You might have to do this process a couple times to achieve maximum relaxation.

4. Do some jumping jacks (or other intense movement)

Similarly to the last exercise, we need to use our muscles to pull ourselves out of fight or flight mode. For some people progressive muscle relaxation is enough to do this. For others, it takes more intense movements to activate our parasympathetic nervous system and create that calming response we are looking for. 

By using an intense movement like jumping jacks, we are raising our heart rate and tricking our body into calming itself naturally. If you are not able to do jumping jacks, any type of movement that increases your heart rate will work. This can include dancing, boxing, jogging, push ups, or fast pacing. Try out a few different types of movement to see what is comfortable for you.

5. Try Therapy

A therapist well versed in panic can help you expand on things that are already helpful to you and provide new ideas for you to try as well. The most effective way to stop panic attacks all together is to get to the root of the panic and process that event or fear. If we can work through the activating thought or traumatic situation that is behind these panic attacks then you can end them all together.

Panic attacks are certainly scary and they make us feel very alone and small. But you don’t have to fight through them alone and you don’t have to suffer in silence any longer. There are many ways to seek help whether that be with a therapist, an online support group, or leaning on family and friends. You are not alone and if you practice these suggestions, you can work through your panic attacks successfully. 

For more information about seeking counseling with me, visit the home page.

About the author

I enjoy helping adults and teens explore their feelings, connect with their passions, and navigate life transitions to lead fulfilling lives. My specialties include anxiety, LGBTQ+ issues, and stress management.

I have a master’s degree from Lesley University. I take a person-centered and warm approach to therapy using eclectic and science-backed methods to help my clients meet their goals.