4 Tactics to Stop A Panic Attack In Its Tracks

Ah, panic attacks.

Last week, I wrote about the difference between panic attacks and anxiety attacks. They are both nightmares, of course, but I’d argue that panic attacks are the more intense, nightmarish ones. I consider myself deeply lucky that I haven’t had either in years, but I still remember the pain: The feeling that my bowels were going to turn to liquid, the heart racing, the desperate desire to escape and sensation that you are going to crawl out of your own skin at any moment.

Defeating panic attacks takes quite a bit – often some combination of therapy, medication or tranquilizers. It takes planning, effort, and strategy. However, there are also tactics which I think you can use in order to defeat or slow a panic attack. Yes, I mean tactics: Specific things which you can do in order to feel more powerful and regain control over your own body and mind.

Here are 4 of them:

Pick a Number. Add By 7. Repeat.

My anxiety was out of control in college, particularly senior year. That time period ultimately resulted in a medication adjustment, increased therapy and the development of a series of tactics with my therapist to stop an panic attack. And this one worked, a lot.

When you have a panic attack, your mind just whirls out of control. The key – as exemplified by this effort and others – is to stop it from doing so. To that end, you have to distract yourself.

So, ask yourself? What’s 1,054 + 7? And then another 7? And then another? Get bored? Subtract by 8 now. Just keep going. Take all of that mental energy you are feeling and put it elsewhere. Do whatever you can to break the chain of anxiety which has wrapped its way around your neck.

Notice Stuff

I actually got this one from a LifeHacker article, and it apparently came from BoJack Horesman. Specifically, two characters are talking, and one starts having a panic attack. The other asks him to notice the things which are giving her anxiety, and then start noticing and describing the more mundane things. Chairs. Tables. Lamps.

I think this one works similar to my example above, but with a different basic idea: You try to distract yourself by immersing yourself in another activity. This, of course, can be impossible to do when your mind feels broken, but it is absolutely worth the effort. With this tactic, you try to lose yourself in something else. You find a detailed object and go DEEP. What color is it? What do you think it feels like? When was it made and who do you think made it?

Allow your mind to run away from itself.

Guided Visualization

Guided Visualization is just what it sounds like – you use it to escape your own mind. Either through an audio or visual file, you follow the narrator on a journey. It often involves breathing deeply and relaxing.

Thanks to YouTube, there are no shortage of examples. Even better is that many of them are highly specific to panic attacks.

I’ll say this: These were hard for me when I had bad ones. When they were on their way out or just starting, my wife could often give me a visualization scenario that worked, but as the panic heated up, it became even harder to focus on visualization. Everyone is different, of course, and I hope this works better for you than it did for me.

Understand What’s Happening

Yes, I understand that this one sounds utterly ridiculous, but if you are capable of thinking logically (big if – big big if), this may be helpful. On a biological level, a panic attack is a misfiring of your body’s flight or fight response. Your brain perceives a threat when none exists. As such, you have to try to trick your brain into coming back to reality.

Difficult as it can be, try to take a step back, something akin to mindfulness. Say to yourself: “This is just a misfiring of the neurons of my brain. Nothing is wrong. There is no threat. I am safe.”

If you can understand what is going on – that there is no threat – you may be able to get yourself out of the attack.

As always, I welcome your advise. And also, please understand, much of what I wrote will not work for everyone. Or maybe anyone, I don’t know. But these things did help me – and I hope they can help you, you too.

 

What is the difference between an anxiety attack and a panic attack?

Having had both, I feel like I’m overqualified to write this article, but as I was discussing this issue with someone the other day, I realized something: As careful as I like to be in my language – particularly when discussing mental health and mental illness – I had goofed. There is a difference between the two, and an important one at that.

What is it? From what I can tell and what I’ve researched, it seems to me that panic attacks are the dramatically more painful experiences, the ones which make it feel like your chest is going to explode out of your body.

There are a ton of similarities, of course. Both come with painful physical symptoms, including chest pain, difficulty breathing, dizziness, upset stomach and other fun things. Both come with an overwhelming sense of fear.

However, anxiety attacks are more characterized by worry and distress. Panic attacks are the ones where you feel as if you have to escape from wherever you are, right now. They often come out of nowhere, whereas anxiety attacks are usually caused by some stress or worry.

It this a distinction without a difference? I’d say no. Panic attacks – if experienced repeatedly – can be beyond debilitating. They can safely be described as “intense and disruptive.” Anxiety attacks can as well, but I’d argue that they are less frightening, and perhaps less painful.

Why does this matter? Because words matter. There’s a reason that there have been so many efforts to watch how we discuss suicide. Phrasing things one way or the other can have implications. It can also affect treatment – anxiety and panic are two different things. Indeed, the notion of an anxiety attack isn’t even a diagnosable illness, but a panic disorder absolutely is.

I’d also add that we need to make sure we don’t confuse these two things because how we discuss them can alter how others respond to them. Panic implies immediate danger and something to be deeply worried about right now. Anxiety, at least to me, implies an ongoing and persistent fear and worry.

Does this make sense to you? Please let me know your thoughts, and if you think this is the right idea or not.

4 ways to stop an anxiety attack

I’ve had a particularly interesting internal debate – well, interesting to me, anyway – about which is worse, depression or anxiety.  I’ve repeatedly come to the conclusion that, at least with the way I have both, I’d rather have depression than anxiety.  Don’t get me wrong – both suck something fierce.  That being said, with depression, if it isn’t too severe, you can still function.  Anxiety, and particularly anxiety attacks makes doing basic tasks next to impossible.

College was the worst for me in that regards.  I would have periodic anxiety attacks, usually brought on by a particular situation.  I developed fears of set events – travelling in buses or planes, for example – that caused me to avoid travelling in general.  Therapy and medication helped get me through, but I still remember how traumatic those events were.  I remember not being able to travel on a bus with my coworkers because I was so, so scared of having an anxiety attack.  Or having a major one while traveling for work that almost caused me to run off of a plane.

Learning how to control my anxiety is what got me through those dark times, and learning how to stop an anxiety attack before it started – or at least how to stop one once it was underway – was immeasurably helpful.  Learning these skills gave me the confidence that I needed to believe that I could survive the worst anxiety attack, and that taught me how to live again.

With that, here’s a few techniques that I’ve successfully used in order to try and head off an anxiety attack before it started, and cool one down when it began.

Oh, and standard disclaimer: I’m not a Doctor or professional. I’m a guy with a blog.  Don’t let my random thoughts stop you from seeking professional, medical advice!

1) Pick a number.  Count to seven.  And keep going.  One of the things I found when I was at my worst was that the brain desperately needed a distraction.  I believe it was a therapist who first made this suggestion to me: Pick a task and run with it.  Pick a random number – 136.  Add 7.  And keep going.  This will, hopefully, distract your brain enough to stop the anxiety attack in its tracks.

2) Breathing Exercises.  There are a ton of variations on this, and there is also ample evidence that anxiety and depression can be ameliorated in the long run with proper breathing techniques.  When I was younger, I found this to be particularly effective, particularly when I first started suffering from anxiety attacks.  I would literally sit there in 8th grade homeroom and say to myself, “There is nothing else but your breath.  Take a deep breath.  Fill your chest as much as possible.  In through your nose and out through your mouth.”

For a more formal exercise, click here.

3) Pick an object.  Any object.  This is related to the first technique.  Getting yourself out of an anxiety attack often means changing the way that you are thinking in order to stop yourself from cycling through panic.  To that end, find an object.  It can be simple or complex.  Stare at that object.  Get lost in it’s texture and colors.  How does it look?  What does it do?  Is it moving?  What are it’s colors?  Rough or smooth? Ask yourself simple questions, and then allow those questions to become more complex.  Remember, the goal here is to get your mind to concentrate on anything other than the panic.

For me, when I was at my worst, the challenge with this was trying to get myself to concentrate on an object, because starting too long at something could make me feel worse.  If that’s the case for you, no problem!  If one object doesn’t work, try picking a different one.  Or, allow yourself to look away for a moment before coming back to the object in question, and starting the cycle over.

4) Call someone.  I found that conversations with others – people I trusted, who wouldn’t judge – could be helpful.  If you allow yourself to get lost in your own mind, you can get yourself into trouble.  To that end, talk to someone you trust and love.  Talk about the anxiety attack.  Talk about the weather.  Do whatever works for you, but just make sure that you can get out of your own head.

As always, these are just suggestions, just my thoughts.  Have better ones?  Let us know in the comments!